Rebellion, joy, sex, and panic define the days and ways of a group of young gay men in 1980s London in Russell T. Davies’ marvelous British miniseries “It’s a Sin,” now streaming in full on HBO Max. The five-episode drama opens a compassionate window — gilded by a top-to-toe perfectly cast ensemble — onto lives touched and destroyed by the encroaching AIDS epidemic of the period even as its characters try to live freely out of their respective closets. As a vital television document about AIDS and the hard-earned freedoms that were crushed on human and systemic terms — and as purely just a piece of masterful writing and acting — “It’s a Sin” is right up there with Tony Kushner’s epic “Angels in America” as must-see queer viewing. It’s capable at once of breaking your heart, putting it back, then breaking it all over again.
Transplanting his dazzling showmanship as the proudly out frontman of Brit pop group Years & Years to the decidedly more modest stage of the small screen, Olly Alexander brings an infectious energy and enthusiasm to the role of Ritchie Tozer. A wiry teen all but bursting out of the closet, Ritchie dreams of more than a quaint life on the Isle of Wright with his out-of-touch mum and dad. So he flees to London to study drama, where he sparks an instant connection with Jill Baxter (Lydia West), a fellow aspiring thespian who at first serves as the “bisexual” Ritchie’s beard before introducing him to the tall drink of water Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) at a local pub bubbling with queer kids. Ritchie and Ash’s embarrassing first sexual encounter (involving a rim job gone cringingly wrong) serves as his gateway drug into the orbit of his comfortably out-of-the-closet, polyamorous peers.
The series very quickly introduces the rest of its ensemble, all of whom are impossible not to adore: That includes the tartly witty resident queen Roscoe (Omari Douglas), who fled his Nigerian immigrant family to live freely as a queer man in the city. Then there’s Colin (Callum Scott Howells), a tweed-wearing introvert who’s taken a job at a London menswear shop under the leering supervision of a creepy, corpulent male boss. Equally out-of-sync with the throbbing pulse of ’80s gay club life but far further along in his homosexual journey is Gregory (David Carlyle), whom the gang affably dubs “Gloria” (one of many cheeky nicknames they dole out). Together, they all move in together into a shabby, colorfully adorned flophouse they call the Pink Palace, where Jill becomes a fulcrum for them all, a burden that becomes increasingly onerous as AIDS starts to become a very real thing.
At first, no one knows what it is, or what to call the phenomenon that seems to be killing off gay men. Is it a bird flu? A cancer? An allergy to mold? A money-making scheme for drug companies? Merely the freakish disease that ended the life of Rock Hudson? All these theories are tossed around. Ritchie, reveling in a seemingly endless parade of unprotected sexual partners, doesn’t believe it, as he so proudly proclaims on a laser-lit dance floor, in between passionate kisses with strangers, in one of the series’ several stylized visual reveries.
But whatever it is, it’s getting closer. Colin’s only mentor at the menswear shop, Henry (a dandyish Neil Patrick Harris), falls seriously, suddenly ill. Others start falling down too, and the numbers begin to climb. “There are boys all over the world dying from sex, and I want to know why,” Jill says, who becomes both investigator and martyr in trying to untangle and understand the mystery sickness that’s picking off her peers — even as her friends continue bedding whomever they please.
Which isn’t to say that “It’s a Sin,” written entirely by Davies and directed with a confidently loose energy by Peter Hoar takes a judgmental stance about casual sex even as the material turns dour. Instead, the series aims to contrast what was an obviously celebratory period in gay men’s lives (even under the eye of Margaret Thatcher) against the forces conspiring against it. In other words, “It’s a Sin” highlights a slice of the population for whom outside the closet doors came a terrible, unexpected abyss. But Ritchie, for most of the series, chooses to ignore and even deny it, culminating in a you-can-see-where-this-is-going final hour that, while inevitable, retains enormous power.
The series doesn’t shy away from the physical and physiological particulars of the hell wrought by AIDS on the human body — lesions, delirium, and all. But as harrowing as the show may be in moments, it’s never an excruciating watch, and that’s largely thanks to the cast. Alexander has never been better as the wide-eyed, twinkly Ritchie, and Douglas burns the screen as Roscoe, an eventual gold-digger who charms his way into the graces of a hypocritical aristocrat (played delightfully by Stephen Fry). But the show ultimately belongs to Lydia West, whom Davies plucked from his prior BBC One series “Years and Years.” Even as she begins avidly leaning the wary group toward protesting in the streets in the fourth episode, Jill becomes in many ineffable ways the mother these boys never had, or never could have had. West is a constant spring of refreshment in a series otherwise about men whose dogmatically apolitical lives unfortunately, inevitably, must become political to survive.
Series creator Davies is easily the progenitor of how we see contemporary gay life on small screens thanks to the original “Queer as Folk,” which captured the ethos of a post-AIDS panic gay Manchester in the 1990s. Here, Davies just as easily understands and immerses us within the 1980s, with an evocative soundtrack that courses through the series like sonic MDMA, from the Pet Shop Boys (from whom the series gets its title) to Bronski Beat, Culture Club, Kate Bush, Joy Division, and Duran Duran. “It’s a Sin” is utterly transportive, and may even make you yearn for the past. Quite a feat for a show that’s on paper about AIDS, but beneath its surface says much more about what it meant to be gay at the end of the 20th century.
All five episodes of “It’s a Sin” are now streaming on HBO Max.