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It Is Possible to Be Too Crowd-Pleasing? HBO's 'It's a Sin' Tests the Limits

By Caspar Salmon | TV | February 19, 2021 |

By Caspar Salmon | TV | February 19, 2021 |


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Perhaps the biggest gotcha in cinema — or the most famous — comes in Pretty Woman, after Vivian (Julia Roberts) has been refused service in a high-end shop. Returning to the shop the next day, she decides on a whim to confront the snooty saleswomen who had spurned her, showing them the money that they missed out on. “Big mistake. Huge!,” she crows before waltzing off again, leaving the two women gobsmacked. Pow pow! It’s a little like a scene in a western, where the cowboy disarms an enemy and then saunters off into the sunset.

Russell T. Davies’ new TV show, about five friends in London at the height of the AIDS crisis, features what feels like dozens of these scenes — big heartswelling moments of characters smartly putting people in their place, before walking off, leaving their antagonist open-mouthed and speechless. One such moment comes when the gang employs a lawyer, Lizbeth Farooqi (Seyan Sarvan), to get their friend Colin out of medical imprisonment. At this point, the programme goes into Boy’s Own Adventure mode, with the hero duly sweeping into the building, filmed in retreating steadicam as she magnificently pushes through sets of double doors, and issues a stern ultimatum to the people sequestering Colin — one which naturally leaves them speechless. The effect of this sequence is to give the audience a sense that we are on the same team: it’s a moment of air-punchingly righteous payback, which also clarifies that we are on the right side, and the old men defeated by this legal eagle are the wrong’uns.

Or take another one, in the fifth episode, when Ritchie (Olly Alexander) is being taken away to hospital in an ambulance after a worsening of his illness, whereupon a busybody of a neighbour who has never been seen before in the programme remarks to Ritchie’s friend Roscoe (Omari Douglas) that AIDS stands for “angels in distress”, meaning that Ritchie will be taken away to a greater love. Roscoe considers, then picks up a bin and launches it through his neighbour’s shopfront, smashing it to smithereens. That certainly shows her. This comes not long after Roscoe has served payback on a Tory lover/john, Arthur Garrison, played by Stephen Fry, by pissing in coffee intended for Margaret Thatcher. How Garrison’s mouth hangs open, at this revelation! (The show’s director doesn’t help by making a meal of this sequence, in dwelling far too long on Roscoe and Arthur after the reveal, leaving the gotcha to fizzle out.) Following this coup, Roscoe turns on his heals and disappears, binning the tie and suit jacket that Arthur had bought for him — his own master once more.

Or take one last instance, when Jill (Lydia West) confronts Ritchie’s mother, Valerie (Keeley Hawes, giving an over-emphasised performance among a cast that occasionally strays into Hollyoaks territory), after his death. In this scene, a reckoning has been a long time coming, as Valerie has been a toxic presence in Ritchie’s life, leading him to be closeted and shameful. Jill blames her for her son’s death, in a stern dressing-down, a deservedly vituperative lecture which leaves Valerie with no response but a meek “I didn’t know,” as we follow Jill with a retreating steadicam as she walks off, to god knows where.

These moments in themselves don’t necessarily represent a failure: indeed there’s a cathartic power in a minority rallying against the oppressor. But taken together these scenes do betray, on Russell T Davies’ part, a facile treatment of difficult questions and of ambiguous interpersonal relations. These gotchas, and other moments of indulgent grandstanding and speechifying, are so many frustratingly crass missteps in a programme capable of exquisite touches. It’s as if Davies’ more basic instincts towards crowd-pleasing take over from his better judgment; from his sometimes piercingly acute writing.

One such shiveringly good scene occurs when Ritchie, who has become riddled with fear that he has contracted HIV, is filming a sequence for a TV show. A technician approaches him to check the lighting on his face, gauging the quality of the light for the shot. This becomes a deeply unsettling scene as the man seems to sniff around Ritchie’s face, getting close to him, inspecting his every pore, before uttering the words that Ritchie has probably been telling himself as he daily checks his body for Kaposi sarcoma lesions: “There’s something wrong with your skin.” In this scene, the body of another man has entered into Ritchie’s space, invading his sphere — this action feels threatening, and exists in counterbalance to all the giddy sex with men that we have seen Ritchie enjoy in the show; from there, the man seems to mesh with Ritchie’s conscience, speaking words that embody Ritchie’s mounting dread. It’s a scene in which the rhythm of the show (which is often gratingly quippy and Famous Five-ish) is slowed down to allow something more sinister to creep in, a moment when the uncanny crosses over.

Another exquisite scene comes right after a horribly coarse plot moment, perhaps the show’s worst, showing Davies’ erratic handle on tone. At a protest attended by some of the protagonists, but which Ritchie has said he cannot come to, Jill is being brutalised by police officers, hitting her with truncheons — when who should appear out of nowhere to repel the police officers, soundtracked by an absurdly enormous swell of the programme’s score, but Ritchie himself! It’s a development of shit-eating coarseness: the audience always knew that Ritchie (and indeed Roscoe, who had also made his excuses and also then turned up like a hero) would arrive, and sure enough here he is, saving the day, just in time like the US cavalry. What did the UK’s air do to deserve so much punching?

Yet that is immediately followed by a sublime scene, in which Ritchie finally reveals to his friends that he has AIDS, after holding his secret in for an agonisingly long time. He is able to do so without mentioning it by name, by warning his friends not to touch him as he is bleeding; his comment is easily understood by all. This is delicately written, and it fits well with Ritchie’s character; it also has a feel of pared-down humanity. On top of this, Davies has the winning idea of including a total stranger at this emotional time (the friends have all been arrested at the protest, along with one other person they don’t know). The hilarious, irrelevant presence of “Leanne” at this bleak revelation is winning, showing us characters who have to carve out such moments in inhospitable surroundings rather than constantly create an artificial grandstanding platform for themselves out of thin air.

Too often Davies succumbs to this urge — as when Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) delivers a long sermon at a party about the evils of Section 28, which causes all the guests to gather round in silence and awe, to hear this righteous disquisition. Such scenes feel like the superimposed voice of hindsight rather than the expression of one human’s feelings. These elements, and others besides, are forced, showing the bare workings, the flayed skeleton, of a TV show anchored in the political. The same goes for the programme’s laboured discussions of the issues of the day, in which two people can always be found to offer up different sides of the debate, or the insensitive way that it disposes of one of its central characters, Colin (Callum Scott-Howells). There, Colin’s AIDS diagnosis is used as a twist (which is a little cheap but broadly fine), and his death is used as an episode-capping coup at the end of the third installment, following which he is barely ever mentioned again. Colin really only existed as an idea: the idea that not only sluts caught AIDS, but sometimes innocent boys just fresh from their first lay. He never really integrates the group plausibly as a character; it is quite shocking, in the context of the show, that episode 4 does not begin with a memorial for him. This makes him feel like a device.

These aspects of the show, when its mechanisms are laid plain, work against the characterisation of the people at its heart, and cause a somewhat chaotic tone to prevail. It’s no sin for a programme to be messy, and in taking on so much it was almost inevitable. But these infelicities tend to work against the grain of the programme, making it primary and explicative. Against these obstacles, Ritchie and Roscoe et al struggle to stay alive: the show’s half-miracle is that they somehow — just about — succeed.

Caspar is a freelance writer who lives in London. You can follow him on Twitter.

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