It’s A Sin builds on a long legacy of HIV/AIDS narratives

Russell T Davies’ acclaimed five-part series It’s a Sin doesn’t exist in isolation. It stands on the shoulders of over 30 years of HIV/AIDS stories. From the very beginning the community used performance and storytelling to memorialize, and as a means of activism. This was in part because the links between the queer community and the artistic community were strong. Both saw art and stories as a way to respond. It was also a means to record a pandemic being ignored by larger areas of society. Plays, novels, and later television and film about AIDS have always existed for two key reasons: as a memorial to those lost, and as an activist tool. It’s a Sin carries on both of those traditions and builds on them.

It’s A Sin. Photograph by Ben Blackall/HBO Max.

The point behind The Normal Heart when Larry Kramer wrote it, like much of his other writing on AIDS, was to shock audiences into action. That’s why we have plays about AIDS, because newspaper articles and news reports were failing to get to the heart of the issue. Later Tony Kushner’s Angels in America outlined the failings of the US government to take action ten years earlier on AIDS. 30 years on It’s A Sin continues that legacy, educating those who have missed out on hearing this story. Larry Kramer was talking to those in his community who weren’t listening. It’s A Sin feels like it’s doing the same; informing the generations who don’t remember that time what happened, and beyond that, telling the story to the broader public for what feels like the first time.

Russell T Davies’ 2021 drama builds on a long legacy. It’s reminiscent of the speech in Larry Kramer’s seminal The Normal Heart that begins ‘I belong to a culture’ in which protagonist Ned Weeks recalls the gay men of history who have been lost. Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E.M. Forster, Lorca, Auden…and so on. There is a through-line of queer culture that in its hidden histories and struggles becomes interconnected. In telling AIDS stories this is vital. This legacy is important. For what Davies draws on, and what he gives an alternative narrative to.

As a community, this story has been told over and over, from the early days of performative activism, to small-scale plays, through to Broadway musicals. There’s a legacy of novels and films, but they’d been sitting in the queer literature section of bookshops, or screened at LGBTQ+ film festivals. Davies throws this directly into people’s living rooms.

It’s A Sin. Photograph by Ben Blackall/HBO Max.

Yes, there were ‘mainstream’ dramas before. Philadelphia and Dallas Buyers Club. AIDS even famously snuck into soaps with EastEnders in the 90s. Or even more recently with Bohemian Rhapsody reminding the world of Freddie Mercury’s story. But all these were mediated, mostly ‘Hollywood Friendly’ maybe even ‘straight audience friendly’, sidestepping the more difficult truths.

Davies writes from a queer perspective, and he writes for a straight audience in a way that everyone will engage with, and hear the story, but crucially he doesn’t pander to that. He doesn’t dilute the story to soft-focus deathbed scenes. He embraces the brutality of it. He’s been good at this in other dramas- from integrating queer characters at Saturday teatime in Doctor Who to throwing unflinchingly difficult queer storylines into dramas like Years and Years, to even a bit of queering Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  

Here you can feel Davies standing on the shoulders of what went before; the good and bad. You can feel the honesty that was missing from Philadelphia or even films like Holding the Man where everything is a bit…clean and nice. Instead, you can feel the same visceral urgency of action that was present in stage dramas. You can feel the political anger of Kushner in Angels in America and the raw grief Kramer shows in The Normal Heart. But you can also feel him opening up these dramas, filling in the gaps of stories they didn’t tell.

Crucially Davies is also telling the British story of that era that didn’t get told. On stage British theatre had a handful of ‘gay plays’ that companies like Gay Sweatshop and smaller fringe theatres performed. Britain didn’t have an Angels or The Normal Heart. The only real ‘AIDS play’ to have prominent productions was Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg, which worked as a British response at the time. It was funny, and self-deprecating, and skirted the issue in typically British fashion. TV continued to skirt the issue, except in medical dramas and muted soap mentions. By the time Davies himself was writing his seminal Queer as Folk in the 90s, it felt like the moment had passed for that story. And instead, Queer as Folk focuses on the post-AIDS world for gay men.

It’s A Sin. Photograph by Ben Blackall/HBO Max.

What It’s A Sin is also doing is filling a historical gap in those stories. The plays, the literature, even the passing references on TV were responding ‘in real time’ or thereabouts. They were a combination of written in the moment grief and rage, or a ‘what can we get past the censors?’ approach to sharing the stories. With time and distance, Davies can side-step those elements and deliver a sense of perspective not seen in other dramas. Davies has now the luxury of perspective and time to be selective about which stories to tell, and how they are told.

Not every story is there. Among the criticisms of the series is that it doesn’t represent all people who were affected. Are the women in the show a good representation of women? Can we do better by Black characters in LGBTQ+ stories? These are valid questions, but the question of ‘why doesn’t It’s A Sin represent everyone?’ should be reframed as ‘why are we expecting this one TV series to do it all?’

We should be grateful this story now exists, while being mindful that is only part of a larger narrative.

It’s vital that it exists now, because for many, tragically, it’s the first time they are hearing this story. And for others, tragically, it’s the first time they’re seeing their story told. For those reasons, in equal measure shocking and compassionate moments are important. In Britain, a whole generation had a history of LGBTQ+ culture erased from their education, and mostly from their lives, by the impact of Section 28. When gay lives couldn’t be discussed in schools, or in any ‘official’ capacity, this whole chunk of history disappeared to some degree with it.

It is perfectly reasonable to interrogate the representation as seen in Davies’ series, as we would any series. But we cannot hold him responsible for a deficit in 30 years of television stories, because we still don’t have the LGBTQ+ stories on TV that we need and because we haven’t told the AIDS stories we need to.

It’s A Sin. Photograph by Ben Blackall/HBO Max.

It’s A Sin both fills a gap and continues this long legacy of vital stories. Davies does what he does best in putting his personal stamp on this; he devastates us but ends in joy, and more importantly with hope. Anyone who has watched anything he’s written knows that dealing with loss, with character death head-on is something he’s never shied away from. Here it’s done with typical honesty, unflinchingly and just like in real life, often when we least expect it. Davies’ other hallmark is humor, and that’s here too, also where you least expect it, because that’s what life is, light and shade. Just because a person becomes ill doesn’t mean the world stops around them, life went on. There’s an unspoken additional chapter to Davies’ story, maybe one he’ll explore later, that the community went on without those who were lost. They went on and lived and lost more and also laughed more. That’s actually the unspoken tragic note in the series, Davies and others are the ones left to tell those stories.

While people of all generations are talking about being devastated by the stories about AIDS that they’re hearing for the first time in It’s A Sin or by the memories that it brings back, it feels like Davies’ message of hope will be the one that endures. That this is the ‘new’ message for this generation of telling AIDS stories.

We can still revisit the anger and the grief that is a call to action and activism. We can sit with the sadness that is a memorial to those lost, but we can also find the hope that Davies shows us; the chosen families, the caring relationships, the family that rallied around, and that start of taking activist action and political engagement, and use those lessons for this next stage in telling these stories.

By Dr. Emily Garside

In the USA all five episodes of Russell T. Davies’ It’s A Sin are on HBO Max now. Watch the first episode for free.

In the UK all episodes are available on demand on Channel 4’s All4, and available to purchase on DVD and Blu-ray.

Behind the Scenes on location. It’s A Sin. Photograph by Ben Blackall/HBO Max.

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