Jiaqi Kang considers the silences and missed opportunities in It’s a Sin, Russell. T Davies’ new TV series about the AIDS epidemic. (Spoilers throughout the text!)
I’ve been excited about the TV programme It’s a Sin ever since I read this poignant essay by its creator, Russell T. Davies, who himself lived through the confusion, panic, and fear of the initial stages of the AIDS epidemic, as well as the long, drawn-out periods of grief that accompanied queer coming-of-age in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s a Sin is aesthetically delightful and well-paced, and comes just in time to ride the current wave of 1980s nostalgia – and that’s not even getting into the inevitable resonances with the pandemic that we’re living today (there’s a particularly visceral hand-washing scene in the first episode). I enjoyed the show enormously while bingeing it, but – perhaps because of its extremely tight five-episode format – the last few sections of the story seem to fall short of the masterful setup. Even though most of the problems that I found I had with It’s a Sin were at first to do with characterisation, my frustrations are ultimately linked back to political issues.
The most visible of the issues with It’s a Sin is the treatment of the non-white characters; or rather, the lack of interest in reflecting on racism. Although the story follows the five friends who live in a home they call the ‘Pink Palace’, the most focus is given to three of them: Ritchie, from the Isle of Wight; Colin, from Wales, who dies quite early on; and Roscoe, whose family is Nigerian and who, alongside the two other inhabitants of the house who are both people of colour), survives to the end of the show. The most generous reading of It’s a Sin would maybe say that, because Roscoe, Jill, and Ash survive, they don’t ‘need’ as much screentime as Colin and Ritchie; but a harsher reading would critique Davies for not bothering to flesh out proper arcs for his non-white characters.
I’m particularly interested in the figure of Jill, the only woman in the house, who is not portrayed as having any complex interiority or independent life of her own. She’s an admirable character, and in fact based on Davies’ friend Jill (who plays Jill’s mum in the show), but her existence begins and ends with the friends that she gives her life to help. In refusing to explore what are probably incredibly complex dynamics between Jill and her housemates – especially concerning her gender and her (assumed heterosexual) sexuality – Davies loses out on a precious opportunity to think about the forms of solidarity that would have been forged during a time of crisis, of life and death, of trauma.
One of the central themes of It’s a Sin is that of the biological family versus the queer family. What does it mean to take care of each other? To whom do we owe care, support, and unconditional love? How do we figure out a way to exist outside of the ‘nuclear family’ convention?
As someone who has never had a ‘queer family’, I’ve previously been exhilarated by the electric atmosphere of almost-exclusively queer social environments portrayed in media, such as Andrea Lawlor’s novel Paul takes the form of a mortal girl (2017), where the lead character Paul basically does not interact with a single cis-het person. By contrast, the Pink Palace in It’s a Sin is clearly meant to be an alternative to traditional domestic spaces such as Ritchie and Roscoe’s family homes. The biological family is either silent, violent or both when it comes to queer children. ‘Going home’ becomes a euphemism for dying of AIDS. Even when one’s family is fully supportive, as in the case of Colin, the home can also be weak, inadequate – Colin’s mother ends up joining the London queer ecosystem rather than vice versa.
However, despite the contrast that Davies sets up, there is ultimately a failure to explore what queer family can mean, and how this might have potential for working towards a radical mode of family abolition in general.
In the final episode, Roscoe, is seen knocking on the door of the house from which he was kicked out more than ten years earlier and making the gesture to healing with his Christian fundamentalist father. This is encouraging, but Davies does not give Roscoe room to truly find closure with his parents, instead relegating him to the background and literally silencing the audio in his scene. It would have been both heartbreaking and heartwarming to see Roscoe’s father accept both his gay son and his daughter who had premarital sex, and thus completely rethink his role as head of a household and priest to a congregation – his role as caretaker, caregiver, shelterer. But that would be far too interesting. Instead, what we get is a perfunctory shot of Roscoe walking into his house, that physical space that had been so violent and repressive for him, followed by silence. At the same time, there is the Pink Palace Christmas party where all the dead are remembered and celebrated – a veritable ode to chosen family – yet Jill’s parents are also present, suggesting Davies is too anxious to completely let go of the nuclear family.
A further gripe I have is the strange relationship the story has to faith. There are two instances of Christians being homophobic in the story – Roscoe’s father, but also the Pink Palace’s downstairs neighbour, Charity, claiming that AIDS stands for Angels in Disguise and that patients should be glad that the Lord is preparing them for Heaven – and in both of these instances, the Christian fundamentalist is a dark-skinned Black person speaking in a heavy African accent. The implication, somehow, is that white British people are homophobic for normal reasons, but African British people are homophobic for faith reasons – but who took Christianity to Africa in the first place? It’s a mystery. This may seem like a small detail, but it’s another indication of the show’s superficial treatment of race and the legacy of colonial violence.
Tory themes throughout the show also cast a strange shadow. Ritchie, the main character of It’s a Sin, is a Tory; he voted for Thatcher. This does not, in fact, turn out to be important to the narrative at all, which is itself quite concerning and a failure to politicise the crisis.
There’s also a really odd section of the story where Roscoe starts secretly dating a right-wing MP who’s obsessed with Thatcher. Roscoe is perfectly happy to ‘sell out’ in order to ensure his own comfort. Roscoe lets the MP’s racist actions slide, but it finally comes to a head when the MP makes homophobic comments, and Roscoe decides that the relationship is no longer worth it. They’re at an event where Thatcher is to make an appearance, and as petty revenge against the MP, Roscoe pisses in Thatcher’s coffee.
Note that Roscoe’s act is purely personal, done to hurt the MP rather than anything to do with Thatcher as a politician. It’s unclear Roscoe even knows about Thatcher’s violent and harmful policies, let alone has an opinion about them. After Roscoe pisses in the coffee, he makes his way to a protest against a pharmaceutical company who exploit AIDS ‘for profit’, as though greed were just a general thing that floats in the air and not encouraged and engineered by a complex, totalising system of exploitation called capitalism; as though the Thatcher scene and the protest scene have nothing to do with each other. All in all, the entire MP storyline could have been completely deleted (or the MP could’ve been replaced with any other famous person, like a rock star) without having any real impact on the narrative at all. What does this all mean? Is Davies afraid to upset the Tories? Is the personal not political to him?
At the start of the story, it made sense for the characters to be blind to tangible economic and social politics because they are extremely young and are in denial about everything – their only goal is to party every day and discover themselves. It’s the exhilaration of being allowed to be out and to ‘have fun’, as Ritchie says at the end of his life. But as the characters’ lives go on and they become more involved in activism, the avoidance of concrete political machinations and Thatcherism’s very real impact on the lives of the characters just becomes highly unconvincing, and a bit weird, especially when more interesting analogies could have been drawn with Covid, as in Colin Wilson’s fascinating article on public health and mutual aid for rs21.
There are also no clearly trans characters with much presence in the story, despite the devastating effect AIDS had on trans women in the 1980s (as seen in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning), not to mention the crucial work that Black trans sex workers have done for the LGBT movement as a whole.
It’s a Sin is a compelling account of the human suffering of the AIDS epidemic and homophobia in the 80s. It asks so many questions, but sometimes does not seem to want to know the answers.