Illustration by Alex Abrahams.
Channel 4’s recent five-part drama, It’s A Sin, has been something of an unprecedented critical and commercial success, garnering five star reviews from multiple outlets, and becoming the most binge-watched show ever on All 4. Actually, with the exception of a very few detractors, I’ve heard almost nothing but praise for Russell T. Davies’ AIDS drama. But when I see a film or TV show almost wholly embraced by popular culture (see: Call Me by Your Name) the apparent absence of criticism puts me on-guard. It’s A Sin follows the lives of a group of gay men and their friends in London in the 80s, captures this difficult period in queer history with a historical realism that is the source of both its success and, in my view, its shortcomings.
I’d like to preface my remarks by stating on-record that I loved the show, and think it deserves all the praise it has been getting. I felt an attraction to the show out of a desire to learn more about what my queer ancestors experienced in the 80s and 90s, but the programme also has a personal significance to me (sexuality aside) as I’m from the same village as Russell T. Davies in South Wales and regularly see him in town. His father was also my granddad’s teacher in school which makes me quite naturally drawn to everything he does. It’s A Sin captures a moment of reckoning in LGBTQ+ history that has not received adequate treatment on British television thus far. Davies has spoken repeatedly about his anxieties that a younger generation of LGBTQ+ individuals do not know what happened to their community only forty years ago. Anything I say below, then, comes from a place of far-reaching respect for this titan of British television and for the renewed dialogue this show has opened up about sexual health in our current time of pandemic.
I’m interested, however, in the theoretical problems that come with the viewing of suffering as presented literary-cultural forms. (I could download the entire argument on Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others here, but I won’t.) What are we doing when we watch an AIDS drama? What are the kinds of baggage with which we approach the show, the motivations and preconceptions as we engage with the drama? The form of the AIDS drama, different even to the genre of LGBTQ+ romance, brings with it certain compulsory narrative conventions set by its basis in historical truth. One expects, with an AIDS drama, an emotive attachment to a certain principle character or characters, an identification with a protagonist who we follow throughout the show, almost always to their inevitable illness and death (or that of a close counterpart). The way this identification operates means different things for different viewers. There seems to me to be a rather thin line between spectatorship as remembrance, and spectatorship a kind of schadenfreude. It’s A Sin is a show that was given a prime TV slot on one of the nation’s leading channels, and so is designed to cater to a range of audiences, but it is this appeal to a wide viewership that is It’s A Sin’s ultimate flaw. The show is particularly aware that a large part of its audience will be heterosexual, cisgendered viewers. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that – the show serves an important didactic function in its documenting of history beyond its role as dramatic entertainment. When we think of the major dramatic representations of the AIDS epidemic in recent history – Pose, Holding the Man, and what I think to be two masterpieces of the form, 120 BPM and Matthew Lopez’s 2018 play, The Inheritance – none of these centre on the impact of the crisis on British LGBTQ+ contexts. Why, then, does one of the pioneering representations of this period in the UK essentially come to revolve around the suffering of a straight female character, the strange desexualisation of whom inevitably casts a value judgement on the “promiscuity” of her dying queer friends?
This is an issue that I’ve had with the show since I first watched it on All 4 in January 2021. I have discussed it with friends who have variously agreed and disagreed with my reading, and I was informed that the character of Jill is in fact based on one of Russell T. Davies’ friends from this era, also named Jill, who, like her fictional counterpart, watched her friends die around her. The real Jill actually plays the fictional Jill’s mother in the show, in what is a touching marriage of the real and invented. In an ideal world, then, the sexuality of this character shouldn’t make a difference to our viewing, or the success of the show. But this isn’t an ideal world. When British LGBTQ+ stories from this period have not thus far received adequate treatment in (tele)visual forms, the extent to which the figure of Jill emerges as a narrative focus seems to me untimely. The problem here is not with It’s A Sin per se, but with the institutional apparatus of television which means that in order for LGBTQ+ stories to be told on prime-time TV, heterosexual and cisgendered audiences have to see themselves reflected in the narrative, to find an anchor in a queer world which includes the underground dungeons of Heaven, the sexual health centre of the 1980s, and most alien of all, the polygamous homosexual orgiastic bedroom.
Aside from her role as a “last (wo)man” figure there’s also the issue of Jill’s desexualisation without any clear asexual coding. Jill’s seeming abstinence, then, in a show revolving around sexual infection, cannot but pathologise the sexual activity of her queer friends in ways that presents their sexual interactions as promiscuous, unheeding, and even shameful. Jill becomes something of a chaste “Virgin Mary” figure in ways I find difficult to make sense of. João Florêncio, Senior Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Exeter, neatly captures the implications of this, describing the show as ‘100% AIDS spectacle for caring straight eyes seeking atonement. […] The young gay men in this series are accessories to Jill’s heroic endeavours. Their AIDS-related deaths, collateral damage in the good straight viewer’s pursuit of reassurance and redemption through identification with the figure of the caring friend.’ Part of the issue is that the show places an inordinate amount of focus on a straight character when the stories of LGBTQ+ figures from this time and place have not yet been told, which, granted, speaks to a wider issue of which this show is only a symptom: namely, how to make an AIDS drama and get a major distributor to fund its production. But the issue is compounded by that figure’s desexualisation in ways that, amongst this larger context, could give an undue charge to heteronormative assumptions of queer promiscuity and obscenity, assumptions that, in 2021, have not been fully quashed.
Davies has spoken about his commitment to colourblind casting and his desire to make his casts more diverse. The real Jill is a white female and her fictional counterpart is a black female. Two other principal figures, Roscoe and Ash, are BME, the ancestry and culture of whom are relevant to their respective characters. But for all It’s A Sin’s attempts to overcome a racial divide, the show neatly divides its figures into white queers who contract the virus and die, and black characters who are sidelined from the worst effects of the epidemic. In doing so, BME figures are treated with an undue sense of caution that, as Kathryn Van Arendon has written in Vulture, makes it seem as if they ‘can’t shoulder the brunt of the tragic weight. […]’ The consequence of de-sexualizing Jill is not only to colour her abstinence with a degree of value (i.e. moral superiority, chastity as goodness), but also fails to present BME figures in anything other than a two-dimensional manner.
I ultimately think It’s A Sin does more good than bad. The show is a starting point for the representation of what happened in this period of queer history. The cast have gone on to do important activism with the Terrence Higgins Trust around National HIV Testing Week earlier this month, reminding viewers that the concerns of this period continue to speak to us today. I do have a fundamental issue with the five-part format which is beyond insufficient to capture a historical event (or series of events) of this scope and magnitude. Five episodes is not enough to present a period of history which began in 1981 and is not really “over” as suggested by problematic “post-AIDS” discourses. But these are more the result of the inevitable institutional compromise Davies had to make in order to get the show produced at all (it was initially designed as eight episodes). I hope that both its successes and its failures can be learned from and that more stories from this period of our history can be told.