The Hierarchy of Tragedy
New York magazine|March 1-14, 2021
In this British series about the AIDS crisis, doom confers importance.
Kathryn VanArendonk

BLACK CHARACTERS AND others of color should have the right to die tragically in sweet, poignant stories about nightmarish moments in history. That’s a slightly off-center place to begin a review of Russell T. Davies’s often beautifully moving limited series It’s a Sin, about the aids epidemic in London. But one of the foundational ideas of the show, which follows several young people through the 1980s and early ’90s as they experience the horrific toll of HIV and aids on the gay community, is that marginalization is key to what made the aids epidemic so devastating.

The series’s five episodes, which aired in the U.K. before hitting HBO Max in February, build toward a big closing thesis-statement-type monologue from Jill (Lydia West), the best friend of the show’s protagonist, Ritchie (Olly Alexander). “It’s your fault,” Jill tells Ritchie’s mother, Valerie (Keeley Hawes). Valerie made her son feel shame for who he was, Jill tells her, and that shame, the sense that gay life was embarrassing and less than fully human, is what fueled the spread of the disease. “The wards are full of men who think they deserve it. They are dying,” Jill tells Valerie, “and a little bit of them thinks, Yes, this is right. I brought this on myself; it’s my fault.” The mainstream refusal to see queer lives as valuable and joyful was crucial to aids’s terrible impact.

For many of the main characters, It’s a Sin is a wrenching, beautiful exploration of that idea, and the series begins with a kaleidoscopic ensemble approach to its story. There’s closeted Ritchie, who moves to London from his small town on an island off the coast of England; there’s bashful Colin (Callum Scott Howells), who gets his first job in a fancy menswear store; and there’s Roscoe (Omari Douglas), who leaves home after his family tries to convert him with prayer and community shaming. They all eventually become friends with Jill, and especially in the first episode, there’s a sense that these stories will become three interwoven threads of relatively equal weight. Ritchie and Colin are white; Roscoe and Jill are Black.

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