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HBO's It's a Sin is a Radiant Coming-of-Age Story in a Dark Period

It’s 1981 in London, and young men like Richie (Olly Alexander) and Roscoe (Omari Douglas) have left their homophobic family homes to be fuller versions of themselves, particularly regarding their sexuality. They find a crucial sense of safety and roommates with other people they meet through acquaintances, like Jill (Lydia West), who joins the group when Richie spies in on her acting class, and Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), who becomes one of Richie’s first partners in the city. It's euphoric for Richie in particular, his eyes opened to the joys of no-strings sex and becoming an artist. 

“It’s a Sin,” the latest show from "Queer as Folk" creator Russell T. Davies, expands with its thoughtful plotting, giving room to different experiences, especially as everyone has curiously different reactions to the growing threat of AIDS. Jill becomes an advocate while balancing time as a stage actor; Roscoe seeks opportunities to elevate his financial status in a goofy subplot involving Stephen Fry; innocent roomie Colin (Callum Scott Howells) tries to make it through his job without getting harassed by his boss. These stories can risk not having enough momentum, but you follow along especially with the strength of the performances. They each create flesh-and-blood characters with their internal dreams, especially Olly Alexander's ebullient performance as wannabe star Richie, or West putting a stoic front to Jill's unwavering empathy for other people’s pain during such a time. The series nearly belongs to those two—and you can practically imagine a two-hour cut that favors them heavily—but the other characters add sincere details about what it would be like to be a gay man in such a repressed, hateful climate. 

One of the series’ biggest weapon proves to be its montages. All of the characters’ lives come together in these high energy sequences, filled with pride about being at a certain age at a certain time. It’s where the series’ period specific needle-drops can shine too, with music from Wham!, Kate Bush, Belinda Carlisle, and of course The Pet Shop Boys. Just the same, “It’s a Sin” knows how to take our breath away with a sudden cutting of the music, like in how it ends its first two episodes on grave dramatic beats. The sudden changes are heavily effective in highlighting tragedy, as some vibrant characters are depicted succumbing to the disease. 

“It’s a Sin” is essentially a radiant coming-of-age story balanced with the sense that the party could end sooner than later. It's an often potent mix between that sense of feeling totally alive amongst your friends, especially at such an independent age, with the gravity of an epidemic that they don’t understand, that they aren’t informed about. Resilience becomes one of the story’s main spectacles, especially in how Richie, Roscoe, Jill, Colin, Ash and others seek to defy all of the various forces that threaten to muddle their deepest goals. But as each episode features a stunning character death, the shadows feel darker and the moments of light feel even brighter. 

The emotional impact isn’t always guaranteed for the show, even though it deals with such a grave subject. Take the final episode, which repositions the focus onto a family member who had been mostly off-screen, facing the sickness of their child. It’s an admirable attempt to expand the scope of the story, and focus it on the damage of shame, but it does not have the same natural storytelling as earlier passages. You never want to feel aggressively forced to cry for a character who is sick in bed, and the final episode of “It’s a Sin” hits that note a few too many times. 

Still, I’ll remember “It’s a Sin” most for the intoxicating nights and specific corner of the world it lovingly depicts, with friends who experience a great deal of life over the course of ten years in the same grimy apartment. Auditions can be a bust, the world may seem like it's closing in, but the group at the heart of “It’s a Sin” sticks together and you love them for it. Their tragic story is not all sad, and across its accumulative life experiences it makes for equally bittersweet and compelling TV. 

Full series screened for review. "It's A Sin" is now playing on HBO Max.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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