A few years ago I took a position that I will not watch any more Holocaust dramas. Having been assigned to watch several in German language classes, I had grown exhausted and angry with their didactic tone. The intended audience was never, it seemed, those of us whom the Third Reich would have targeted, but rather those who might be inclined to sympathize with Nazis were they not told over and over how evil their crimes were. At some point, I couldn’t sit through another film designed to inform me, as if for the first time, that 6 million people like me were murdered.
Watching the mainstream press get hold of It’s a Sin, Russell T. Davies’s new TV series about the AIDS crisis,and make it about them—remark upon how important it was that the Great British Public be reminded of this episode in its history, which it had forgotten; make clumsy comparisons to the present pandemic—I feared, once again, a story that repackaged the horrors suffered by a marginalized group into clichés to feed a different audience. The people who would watch It’s a Sin at 9pm on a Friday on Channel 4 were, I imagined, the same people shown in its third episode, in front of their televisions in suburbia, reacting with shock and disgust when the famous “Don’t Die of Ignorance” PSA aired on TV in 1986.
It may well be that millions such people will watch the programme, though there is a part of me that hopes that they will be turned off by the quantity of sex scenes and by the unflinching, brutal truth of it all. Yes, there are AIDS clichés in It’s a Sin, and Russell T. Davies screenwriting clichés that those familiar with his oeuvre will recognize. But the series avoids mere didacticism. It doesn’t babysit the viewer with tedious dialogue that explains Kaposi’s sarcoma or AZT. Its everyman characters—a collection of friends in their 20s living in London through the 80s—simply, inexorably, watch their friends die. They fight against incredible odds for people with AIDS to be treated with dignity, and they process their own complicated emotions around having to deal with a crisis of such enormity so young. People will have different views on the “must gay characters be played by gay actors” question, and I don’t have a strong position on it myself, but the production team’s decision in this case to cast only gay actors in gay roles keeps It’s a Sin feeling like a series by and for queer people.
Indeed, the programme is unsparing in its sharp criticism of those people outside the community who reacted to the crisis with fear and panic. There are some characters who step up: a couple supportive parents, some caring nurses and doctors. But the series devotes much more screen time to moments of focused, small-minded hate. The villains of the piece are the parents who cannot see that in their final agonizing moments, their young sons would rather be surrounded with chosen family in London than languishing at “home” in the provinces. “You’re just kids,” one mother dismissively says to her dying son’s friends. She then does not listen when they reveal themselves to be far more knowledgeable about how to care for someone with AIDS than she is, when it is clear that her son is only the latest of the friends they have buried. If there is allegory in It’s a Sin, it is perhaps not for the covid pandemic, but rather for the climate emergency and the sins of late-stage capitalism, in which so many older people have refused to listen to the intellectual and moral clarity of the young. A few years ago, when a friend suffered a very significant family crisis, I thought, “no 27-year-old should have to deal with this.” It was nothing compared to what Davies’s characters in their twenties endured, what real people like them in London and New York and Paris and all over the world endured.
I won’t say that, watching, I didn’t sometimes think of the present pandemic. Above all, I reflected on how people latch on to sanitizing surfaces as a practice that gives them a feeling of control, even when there is no evidence that an infection is spread through fomites—in the process, implying that people become ill through unclean habits rather than through viruses. And as I intoned over and over, “Thank God (or medical science) for protease inhibitors and for PrEP,” I thought about the gay men who have been shamed for wanting to have sex in this epidemic. I spent my twenties in New York City: if it were thirty or forty years ago, those would have been my friends dying. It only takes the tiniest bit of imagination and compassion to see how, now that HIV is a manageable chronic health condition and we have drugs that can with near-certainty prevent its transmission, people might want to do what they can to pursue their sex lives, even in the midst of a public health emergency. Why shouldn’t they want—and have a right to—a key form of pleasure that was denied their forebears not only through the ravages of a disease that killed millions, but also through shame and stigma?
I weighed whether it was appropriate for me to say something about It’s a Sin. It’s not my story to tell, and by rights it should be left to the survivors of that time, or the younger gay men who in a more fundamental way still live with its legacy. But Davies offers others of us a way in through the character of Jill, the one woman in the friend group at the story’s center. While many of Jill’s friends spend the early eighties in denial, she avidly seeks out all the information she can find about the strange new illness. She becomes her friends’ advocate to doctors. She runs interference with their parents. She answers the phones at a helpline (one imagines it’s London Gay Switchboard, about which there happens to be an incredible podcast, for those interested in learning more about the history behind the show). She gets arrested at ACT UP demonstrations. She’s the visitor whom every patient and nurse on the AIDS ward knows. There’s a cynical reading of Jill: the asexual fag hag saint, the one woman, a bit pathetic, her life subsumed into those of her friends. She and a disabled single mother who doesn’t disown her dying son—another saintly caricature—are the only significant women characters who aren’t villains in the story.
But there is also a more generous reading of Jill, and it’s this that I most want to take away from It’s a Sin. Jill is a character with immense moral courage, who steps up when her friends and her community need her. If I had been there in the eighties, would I have been a Jill? I’d like to hope so, but of course it’s easy to say that in retrospect. It’s a Sin is Russell T. Davies’s memorial to his dead friends, it’s a nostalgic evocation of what it might have been like to have sex in the toilets at Heaven in the summer of 1981, and above all it is a heartbreaking, unflinching tragedy. If it offers any kind of didactic lesson, it’s a subtle one. But it’s this: what are you doing now to be a Jill in the present crisis? Are you caring for your community? Are you informing yourself about immunology, while also putting compassion first? Are you campaigning for equal access to medical treatments for all? Are you holding the government to account? Are you mourning the dead, while fighting like hell for the living? I’m not sure that I’m succeeding at this, but I’m trying. I hope that you are too.