Are all Welsh twenty-somethings well versed in parrot illnesses? Are they experts in bird diseases? Apparently so if we’re to believe a bizarre scene–one of many–in the critically acclaimed surprise hit British drama miniseries It’s a Sin, which traces the AIDS crisis through 1980s and early 1990s London.
In the scene in question, wide-eyed, endearingly naïve, and barely peeking out of the closet Colin (Callum Scott Howells), a Welsh apprentice at a Savile Row shop, speaks to his newfound older gay colleague and mentor Neil Patrick Harris. Ok, Neil Patrick Harris is playing Henry, but other than his John Waters mustache, he doesn’t have much more to his character than being, well, Neil Patrick Harris. Henry’s partner has been placed in the hospital with a mystery illness, which provoked this head-scratching bit of dialogue:
“They said it was pneumonia and then they said it was something you get from birds. In his lungs. They said it was strange. They said it was some kind of psittacosis.”
“What, like you get in parrots?”
“That’s what they said.”
“You haven’t got a parrot, have you?”
“Of course, we haven’t got a fucking parrot! She sat me down and she said, “Has he been in contact with any birds?” I said, “No?” I mean, what sort of question is that? Birds!”
“But people don’t get psittacosis, do they?”
“Well, no. Except there he is. It’s ridiculous.”
That’s for sure.
Now I know, I know–this scene is supposed to represent the lack of information and mystery surrounding HIV and AIDS, particularly in the early 1980s. But, who the hell knows what psittacosis is that isn’t a vet?
And it’s not just this Welsh innocent’s sudden avian expertise. All five episodes of It’s a Sin, created and written by Queer as Folk and A Very English Scandal’s Russell T Davies, are equal parts confusing, frustrating, enraging, and overzealously melodramatic. The series portrays the panic, the shame, the confusion, the grief, the anger, and the moments of joy during the height of the AIDS pandemic through the perspective of five friends and roommates. While this narrative contained the possibility to correct some of the moralizing tropes of previous depictions of HIV and AIDS on-screen, particularly for a new generation of viewership, it certainly did not achieve that.
Instead, the five protagonists have so little character development that I can barely remember their names. I’ve been referring to them by nicknames like the Welsh kid, the woman, Neil Patrick Harris, and stinky butt or bitchy stank face. This lack of character development doesn’t just make it hard to empathize with the characters, but it also makes them into cardboard cut-out stereotypes around AIDS. There’s the aforementioned Colin, the nearly virginal victim. There’s Ritchie (Olly Alexander), the aspiring actor who bangs most of London while waving off the growing AIDS pandemic (I bet you can’t guess how that ends!). There’s Jill (Lydia West), the Black woman who seems to exist entirely to serve gay men. There’s Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), the sweet Indian guy who is way too attractive for this lot. And finally, there’s Roscoe (Omari Douglas), the witty Black waif with some big Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall bit character energy and whose role in the narrative I don’t fully understand beyond his struggles with his homophobic Nigerian family.
The reference to Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall isn’t a mistake. Nor is it an exaggeration. It’s a Sin, in parts, has the feeling of being the Stonewall level historical stinker of the 1980s. Sure, there isn’t necessarily a barn-storming moment as memorable as Danny, the corn-fed white boy, tossing the first brick at the Stonewall Inn with the holler “GAY POWERRRRRR!!” But there is Jill’s final finger-wagging howl at Ritchie’s mother: “And then he killed people!!!!” Beyond that absurdity, like Stonewall, It’s a Sin relegates characters of color to the sidelines as caretakers whose worlds revolve around all these white gay people with AIDS.
Similar to Stonewall, though, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch It’s a Sin. You should! I binge-watched the series in two days because I’m transfixed by trashy trainwrecks. However, there are bright spots in the series. For instance, as evidenced by its title that references a Pet Shop Boys song, the show’s soundtrack is clearly on point. Kelly Marie. Belinda Carlisle. Sylvester. Bronski Beat. Divine. Kate Bush. It’s like a Filthy Dreams playlist! Strangely though, contrasting with the music’s authenticity, the characters themselves look as if they time-traveled back from 2021 with their lack of 1980s style. Shouldn’t we have at least one main character who is a Soft Cell fanatic with back-combed black hair? Or at least sporting a Bronski Beat T-shirt?!
There are also aspects to the AIDS pandemic that the show excels in depicting, from the general undercurrent of fear and the unknown to the way hospitals replaced bars as hubs for socializing at the height of the pandemic. In particular, the entire series nails its representation of how men and boys would just disappear from daily life during this era, either going to the hospital, returning home to be cared for by, sometimes less than accepting, family, or just suddenly dying. As Ritchie’s agent tells him: “There’s a lot of boys who are going home these days. More and more of them every month. Going home. And I don’t think we’ll ever see them again, do you?”
However, whenever I would finally get sucked into the show and think, “Maybe it’s not so bad. Stop being a ruiner, Emily,” something would happen to knock me out of this and wonder…HUH? In particular, the show’s stubborn attachment to problematic presumptions about AIDS is a nagging ongoing issue, especially the obsession with who may be HIV positive or have AIDS, how they got it, and who they got it from. In light of COVID-19, this fixation seems easier to push. While the show is trying to reveal how shame and homophobia contributed to the unthinkable devastation of the pandemic, it could have done so without contributing to the shaming of people with AIDS themselves.
I’m not the only one who noticed. The Los Angeles Times’ Brian Mullin does a bang-up job laying out how the series features “troubling vestiges of the same moralism” that has haunted HIV/AIDS since the 1980s. For instance, Mullin writes on Colin’s character arc:
“In “It’s a Sin,” structures of blame and mysteries of transmission drive the narrative, recalling the sensational (and inaccurate) notion, at the center of gay journalist Randy Shilts’ bestselling AIDS history “And the Band Played On,” that the plague in the U.S. could be traced back to a sexually active gay flight attendant known as “Patient Zero.” This becomes apparent in the third episode when the innocent, seemingly virginal Colin (Callum Scott Howells) is mysteriously struck down with AIDS-related illness, and Davies’ script fixates on the question of how Colin contracted HIV. The identity of his sole sexual partner is revealed as a shocking plot twist through flashbacks of their sex, distastefully intercut with shots of the dying boy. Davies and his editor bring Colin’s story full circle, reducing him to one type of “AIDS victim”: the innocent naif, doomed from his first sexual encounter.”
But Mullen is one of the only critics that has given It’s a Sin anything less than a gushing, weepy review, which leaves me wondering: what am I missing? So in that spirit, I won’t toss out the show altogether, but I’ve got questions. Lots of questions. Loads of questions! So maybe someone could help me out in answering them, starting, of course, with:
How does Colin know so much about parrot ailments?
Why is Neil Patrick Harris in this if he can’t do a British accent?
Doesn’t his character seem like he’d own a parrot?
Why is Rosco dressed like he’s in Stonewall?
What was the point of this deeply unsettling scene?:
Doesn’t this feel a little forward for a stranger?:
Does Ritchie’s stinky bunghole foreshadow that he’s a Margaret Thatcher supporter?
Why does their London flat look like the set of Rent?
Do you think this mug is camp?:
Speaking of camp, whose shoe painting is this? Is it made by Francine Fishpaw (Divine)’s foot fetishist son Dexter Fishpaw in Polyester?:
Doesn’t Ritchie’s extended AIDS denier montage (“It’s a racket. It’s a money-making scheme for drug companies…I don’t believe a word of it. Now hit me with those laser beams”) sound like anti-masker COVID deniers? What is the role of this other than casting Ritchie in a godawful light?
What did Sylvester do to become the soundtrack for Ritchie’s AIDS denialism?
If we were going to have extended sequences of Ritchie banging half of London gunning for the inevitable moralizing conclusion, shouldn’t it have been to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ new Suicide-esque song “Hand of God”?
Why does Ritchie speak to Jill like he’s been red-pilled (“They got to you–the thought police. You are infected!”)?
Is Ritchie a proto-Milo?
If he survived, would he be into QAnon?
Why would Jill still be friends with him after he said she’s “infected” by her concerns about AIDS?
Isn’t Ritchie the worst?
Is it possible for a gay creator like Davies to make a gay representation that is so narcissistic and selfish that it feels homophobic?
Why are there so many musical performances?
When are these friends going to sing “Seasons of Love”?
Why can’t they give that “La” inside joke a rest?
Who sent Colin’s mom a box of shit and why is this in the show? And why is it never mentioned again?
Who in Wales watched Pink Flamingos?
Were they, in fact, happy now?
Is it part of an AIDS diagnosis that you have to uncomfortably confess to people that you wanked off to them? Because both Colin and Ritchie do that–one, of course, being less aware since he’s suffering from AIDS-related dementia.
Is this neighbor a big fan of Marianne Williamson?:
Is Roscoe not a really big fan of Marianne Williamson?
Why does the hospital seem to be only for white gay men with AIDS?
Do people of color get HIV or AIDS in this universe?
Or do they just exist to be caretakers?
Roscoe stumbles on his Nigerian father in the hospital with a man, Reggie Lesseps, who is “from the church,” though we never see him. Can we assume there’s at least one Black person in the hospital?
Speaking of Roscoe, what is the point of Roscoe’s story with Stephen Fry’s MP?
Did Margaret Thatcher really drink coffee with a splash of, as Roscoe says, “Black man’s piss” (please please)? Did she like it?
Ok, back to the hospital, do women get HIV or AIDS in this universe?
Or do they just exist to be caretakers?
Speaking of, does Jill have any life of her own? Does she have anything she likes to do other than acting as an accessory to gay men?
Why do no lesbians or queer women exist in this universe? They’re not even in the background in the bars.
Why are white men these near-religious martyrs?
Why is Ritchie, in particular, after being a dick for five episodes bathed in soft glowing light like a saint in the final flashback scene?
Ending with REM’s “Everybody Hurts” is a little on the nose, no?
Why, of the main characters who die of complications with AIDS, is there a clear virgin and whore?
When will we get over this narrative?
How many HIV/AIDS activists did Davies consult before writing this show? None?
How does It’s a Sin have 98% on Rotten Tomatoes?
Does criticism exist anymore?
Is it possible to create a contemporary drama either about the AIDS crisis or that includes an HIV or AIDS storyline that doesn’t feel like an after-school special?
Is this better or worse than Ryan Murphy’s cringe interpretation of The Normal Heart? I sincerely can’t tell.
Why did almost every character who died from complications from AIDS get sick and die within the span of an episode?
Why couldn’t anyone actually live with HIV or AIDS?
Can you represent shame without actually being shaming yourself?
Is it the simplified appeal to a mainstream audience that makes these things doomed to disappoint?
Since everyone in It’s a Sin is a stereotype, where would YOU fit in this story? I’m this crazed old Goth lady with Siouxsie Sioux eyeliner haunting the gang’s housewarming party that brings down the crowd by talking about AIDS in San Francisco:
Miss your emails ALS is robbing my body every day and night. Sending love,
Timothy Lunceford-Stevens JD