Though we are the global pandemic we are talking about today is a respiratory one, it is no doubt drawing major parallels to another ongoing epidemic, that has been receiving a lot less attention: the HIV and AIDS epidemic. A new series from Russell T. Davies, creator of Queer as Folk, takes us back to the beginning of that epidemic featuring Olly Alexander, Neil Patrick Harris, and Stephen Fry as stars. In a new clip from the project, Alexander in his lead role as Ritchie Tozer, spirals out as an AIDS-denier, invoking conspiracy theories you might find circulating on Facebook if you fall down the wrong hole.
“The whole thing is a pack of lies,” the character says. “Do you want to know the truth? You want to know what it really is? AIDS? It’s a racket, it’s a money-making scheme for drug companies. Do you seriously think there is an illness that only kills gay men? It can calculate that you’re gay and kill you, but only if you’re gay and no one else? Hmm.”
What follows is Tozer repeating all of the mostly debunked, ludicrous ways that people at the time were saying the virus worked. The monologue puts on screen many of the actual early rebuttals to the growing epidemic: if it’s cancer as it was initially called, why is it transmissible? How can it tell you’re gay? The list goes on. Because of the uncertainty about the disease, it spurred people into disbelief.
“Don’t you see what all these things have got in common?” Tozer says. “They are not true! And how do I know? How do I know it’s not true? Because I’m not stupid which means I don’t believe it.” As Alexander gives the monologue he walks with his friends from club to club, spliced with clips illustrating the conspiracies: he’s having sex here, there’s monkeys there, and even a fabled “patient zero” flight attendant played by performance artist Harry Clayton-Wright at one point.
It’s a Sin, which is set to debut in the UK this month and sometime this year on HBO Max, is Davies’ first real narrative that deals with AIDS. The pandemic was notably ignored on Queer as Folk. The new show is also being called history-making as it reportedly is the first television series in the country to center the pandemic.
In an essay for The Guardian, Davies reflects on why it’s taken him so long to write about the epidemic — which he lived through. In the piece, it becomes clear that many of the things Tozer is saying in the new clip are pulled from the writer’s own memories. He writes that during that period he “kept [his] head down and let it happen.”
“History is written by the activists — I look with awe at the fury which drove Larry Kramer,” he wrote. Kramer, who died last year, was a well known and outspoken American activist who went on to write The Normal Heart. Davies mostly kept his head down, out of grief, trauma, shame, and fear. And though Queer as Folk never mentioned HIV or AIDS, in 1994, five years before that show debuted, he created a 15-year-old HIV+ teenager for Children’s Ward at Granada Television.
“[With Queer as Folk,] I refused to let our lives be defined by disease,” he writes. “So I excluded it on purpose. The omission of AIDS was a statement in itself, and it was the right thing to do.”
It’s a Sin follows Tozer and his friends played by Lydia West, Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, and Nathaniel Curtis as they navigate life, love, and loss during the 1980s.