The HBO Max miniseries sensitively explores a lost golden age — and the dawn of AIDS.

Has anyone ever partied like a gay man in 1981? It's a Sin begins with three young guys arriving in the London scene, suddenly unshackled from cruel tradition and quaint heteronormality. Ritchie (Olly Alexander) cruises over from the Isle of Wight, a small-town boy discovering his university's drama department and the boys therein. Roscoe (Omari Douglas) withstands his fiercely religious family's sodomy cures — until they threaten to send him to Nigeria. Colin (Callum Scott Howells) comes from Wales, like all the best Englishmen do, and winds up working on Savile Row. The music, the parties, Blondie, Erasure, threesomes, foursomes, moresomes: It's all so new, a world of pure getting-away-with-it pleasure created for them and by them. Everyone is still living in what we'd call the closet — homosexuality gets a person fired, arrested, or worse — but aren't the clothes just wonderful?

It's a Sin debuts Thursday on HBO Max, and its five episodes cover a decade of increasingly difficult days. In the premiere, we overhear rumors of a gay flu, or maybe it's a gay cancer; tough to make out over all those orgy sounds in the next room. There's some sort of plague in San Francisco, and by episode 2 everyone agrees not to sleep with any Americans. "No yanking the Yanks!" Ritchie commands, and that merry tone belies traumas ahead. There will be lymphomas, twentysomething dementia, homophobic bureaucracy, even some casual police brutality at a peaceful protest.

Creator Russell T. Davies, who crafts his fictional narrative from his own memories of the moment, takes an honest look at the physical toll of the AIDS epidemic. He depicts how society moved too slowly to stop the spread, while ignoring (or condemning) its victims. But he also uses the miniseries format to evoke far-flung layers of experience. In the stunning conclusion of the first episode, Roscoe, Ritchie, and Colin reveal their dreams for the future. That montage full of hope cuts to a lonely AIDS victim dead in an empty hospital wing. Nurses appear and wipe his space clean: an act of erasure, and a bed too many other men will fill.

Its A Sin
Credit: Ben Blackall/HBO Max

Davies is known on these shores for two transformative series: 1999's Queer as Folk was a pioneering gay drama that broke through various explicit-content boundaries and inspired an American remake, and his 2005-2010 run on Doctor Who more or less invented our entire modern mode of genre revival. With It's a Sin, Davies gets personal, blending his sharp comic instincts with the characters' dawning awareness of the horror in their midst.

The three young men wind up living together, in a flat nicknamed the Pink Palace. The other roomies are Ritchie's friend/performing partner Jill (Lydia West) and Ritchie's on-again-off-again Ash (Nathaniel Curtis). The living situation could form a lovely little sitcom: so many big personalities at the dinner table, so many clubs in walking distance, so many crisscrossing lines of hookuppery. "God, you've all had each other," Jill says at one point. Ritchie laughs, but it's really a warning. She's already seen one friend dwindle from HIV onward — and he won't be the last. (On a show full of dynamic young male performers, West becomes a dominant presence, heroically bearing witness to a generation of tragic loss.) 

The AIDS crisis in the U.K. hasn't been covered much on TV. But It's a Sin arrives in the wake of New York-focused projects like PoseThe Normal Heart, and The Deuce, not to mention the fact that our generation turned Rent into a very goofy Fox event. Davies shares the broader social concerns of those projects, but he also digs deep into his characters' idiosyncrasies. Roscoe dreams of a nice Thames view, and doesn't mind serving as a kept man for a wealthy politico (Stephen Fry). Colin is shy, almost prudish, and Howells brilliantly suggests reserves of sweet striving hiding just beneath his exterior. He meets a senior tailor named Henry (Neil Patrick Harris), whose decades-long monogamous relationship offers the promise of a domestic gay future beyond the Pink Palace's revelries.

"The official history of the world says that men like us have always been hidden away in secret," Henry says. "But then there's the real world, where we've been living — together — for all this time." Harris plays the part with a calm I've missed in his magician phase — and he shows how the character's nonchalance very British-ly sweeps away darker realities. When Colin asks about his family, Henry says, "I've moved on from them." He does not elaborate.

Then there's Ritchie, a flat-out virus denier who thinks AIDS is a lie the thought police cooked up to ruin his good times. He votes for Margaret Thatcher, and doesn't think children's books should feature gay parents. "Every single conversation has to go on and on about AIDS," he complains. It's a testament to Alexander's performance that even a vain line like that seems to underline Ritchie's own peculiar pathology, the way his proud hedonism masks deep reservoirs of good-son shame. His friendship with Jill forms the emotional core of It's a Sin — and their duet on Yazoo's "Only You" is a soaring emotional high point.

At times, the characters directly address the camera — and Davies entertainingly recreates certain modes of '80s pop culture, from West End guillotine dramas to a Whovian cameo. After the joy-to-horror onslaught of the first three episodes, the latter parts struggle to balance big speeches with one absolutely ridiculous (if quite cheeky) bit of anti-Thatcherite rebellion. The final episode takes the biggest narrative leap, bringing in Ritchie's previously little-seen mom, Valerie (Keeley Hawes), for a kind of close-up character study. I'm not sure it quite works, honestly, despite Hawes' tense performance. That final act also relegates the broader ensemble to deep supporting roles, and loses the vibrant feeling that the crisis affects everyone's individual lives differently.

At its best, though, It's a Sin brings a unique mix of poignant enthusiasm and simmering sorrow to its tale. Davies' characters are flawed people living in a flawed society, and those cracks cut deeper as AIDS becomes the single conversation. At one point, Ritchie and his maybe-boyfriend Donald (Nathaniel Hall) are in bed, starting to fool around. They know what they should do, and pull out a condom. It sours the mood, slows things down. They both agree: You "can't feel anything" with one of those things on. "We're both clean, don't you think?" asks Ritchie. It's a devastating line no matter what comes next, unexpectedly echoing all manner of is-this-safe conversation from our own pandemic year. With remarkable emotional and moral clarity, Davies presents the central trauma of the early AIDS crisis as a maddening lack of clarity: a mystery illness devastating a subculture kept hidden from the regressive mainstream. The virus kills. So does the fear, and the loathing. Grade: B+

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