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‘It’s a Sin’ and the infectious nature of guilt

| Thursday, March 11, 2021

Maggie Klaers | The Observer

Whenever the AIDS pandemic is portrayed in media, it’s either a serious documentary or a “cancer” story where the protagonist dies. Tragically, both of these narratives seem to only portray fragments of reality. As a gay man who lived through the ‘80s, Russell T. Davis reclaims the narrative with his show, “It’s a Sin,” showing how internalized shame and outward damnation created the landscape in which a disease like AIDS went untreated and unstopped.

Immediately comparable to “Pose,” this show offers all the same style without the colorful escape of ballroom culture, instead grounding it in the more relatable lives for people across the sexuality spectrum. 

The first episode establishes the characters played by a beautiful and talented cast. Olly Alexander offers a stand-out performance as Richie, and all of the characters — no matter how small — seem tangible and full. Neil Patrick Harris appears in the first episode as a gay man in an established relationship protecting and showing newcomer Colin, played by Callum Scott, a world where being gay isn’t sinful.

The moment is one example of brilliant casting, because for me — and many people currently the same age as the characters in the show — Neil Patrick Harris and his partner David Burtka were one of the first openly gay couples in the spotlight. The show in its nature seeks to connect young people today with the experiences of gay men in the ‘80s. The writing is outstanding, and I found myself immediately invested in these characters and wanting experiences for them. I wanted them to accomplish their dreams, to have fun and almost most importantly, to have sex.

“It’s a Sin” starts with the characters down their expected paths. There are coming-of-age stories, redemption arcs and sacrificial lambs; but the writing reverts the stories, offering these plots to characters who usually wouldn’t get them — subverting expectations and pulling emotional reactions and investment from viewers in a genuine way. It’s a masterclass in writing. 

“It’s a Sin” is beautiful, with its dynamic lighting, vivid colors, dynamic soundtrack and long, gorgeous monologues. It creates a fantasy world for the characters as they simultaneously deal with grounding problems juxtaposing their joy and sadness, while never causing emotional whiplash for the viewers.

The characters’ go-to greeting “La!” gets more somber before disappearing. The monologues grow shorter as the story goes on, the colors get muted and the story gets sadder, yet there are moments of genuine humor or perpetual kindness and love. There are moments of emotional confession — don’t worry, they aren’t coming out scenes — where people make jokes to not only break the tension for the viewer, but also for the characters in the scene in a realistic way.

The final episode substitutes the funky party music of the ‘80s with the silent clinking of a mother’s heels on hospital tiles as she asks questions no one has the answers to, until she finally finds refuge in her son’s arms. Scenes as emotional and as well done as this one litter “It’s a Sin” from beginning to end.

The final episode proves something that was obvious throughout the show: The conflict of these people’s stories — the enemy in their lives — is not AIDS. AIDS was just something that happened. It may loom over the first episode, but by the second, the true antagonist is revealed to be the shame that was instilled in the community and the ignorance that prevented them from feeling loved by the world around them.

“It’s a Sin” provided political and societal commentary without ever assigning guilt. Instead, there is this through-line of the infectious and debilitating nature of guilt and fear. 

Despite the countless tears on my school notebooks and in my Lucky Charms cereal as I watched this show, all I can remember is the joy. Like one character’s yellow raincoat in dreary London, the show inseparably displayed joy and sadness, echoing grief in a relatable way. “It’s a Sin” is a gift. 

Show: “It’s a Sin”

Starring: Olly Alexander, Lydia West, Neil Patrick Harris

If you liked: “Pose,” “Sense8,” “Sex Education”

Where to watch: HBOMax

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

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