The paradox that It’s a Sin (HBO Max, five episodes) gets crushingly right is the sense of immortality that its young characters feel as they begin life in London, not knowing they’re entering a city that will soon become a premature graveyard. It’s 1981, a year after the movie Fame’s title track expressed the way they feel: “I’m gonna live forever . . .”
Fresh from the literal backwater of the Isle of Wight, 18-year-old aspiring actor Ritchie (Olly Alexander) skips into the sexual freedom he’s never known, his face a blur of eagerness and apprehension as he scans the pickings at his first gay bar. Caught ogling a handsome man, Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), at an acting class, fellow thespian Jill (Lydia West) rushes out to help get the two men together. She becomes, in a heartbeat, Ritchie’s best friend and platonic soulmate.
Titled for the 1987 Pet Shop Boys song (one of many spot-on 1980s cuts on the soundtrack), It’s a Sin quickly introduces us to its other major players: Roscoe (Omari Douglas), a young Black man who refutes his repressive Nigerian/Yoruban background by leaving his parents’ homophobic home in makeup and a skirt, and Colin (Callum Scott Howells), a polite, prim fellow from Wales who works in a bespoke tailor’s shop and becomes an improbable roommate at the Pink Palace where the other extroverts live. (Neil Patrick Harris plays a senior, gay tailor who befriends Colin and gentles him into the realities of London gay life.)
Created by Russell T. Davies (the original Queer as Folk, the 2005 reboot of Doctor Who and 2019’s Years and Years), Sin makes a smart move by making its central character charming but flawed. Like many non-maskers in Arizona at the height of COVID-19, Ritchie tricks with hundreds of men, all while claiming that AIDS is a hoax. He doesn’t wear condoms. Won’t come out to his family. And he votes for Margaret Thatcher. Jill, meanwhile, becomes an advocate for the degraded, despised and abandoned men who crowd the hospital.
As we enter the second year of the pandemic, some scenes in Sin carry extra resonance. In the first episode, we see one man, among the first in the cast to be felled by the disease, isolated in an NHS ward. The porters won’t even deliver his meals; they drop them on the floor outside the door. In the final episode, a caregiver enters the room of a stranger who’s dying alone and unloved. She asks if she can sit a while by his bed, holds his hand — and all of human suffering and grief and kindness is contained in that moment.
The show isn’t perfect. I preferred the audaciousness of Davies’ futuristic Years and Years, also on HBO, which like Sin was willing to tear your heart apart. In its last episode, Sin’s focus narrows a little too much. When Jill righteously tells off a woman who refused to love her son as the proud gay man he was, it’s a perfect speech but has a little too much of l’esprit de l’escalier — you know, when you belatedly come up with the sharp, witty thing you should have said in the moment. Also, a weakness at the core is singer-turned-actor Alexander. He’s adorable but never convinced me that Ritchie has the talent and charisma that could make him a famous actor. Minor quibbles.
At the end of one episode, a character recently diagnosed with AIDS declares, “I’m gonna live!” The memory came back to me of a friend who said much the same in 1988: “I’m gonna beat this thing.” Wishing doesn’t make it so. He died before 1990 dawned. It’s a Sin is wise enough to show us both the glory and the tragedy of young lives needlessly cut short.
NETFLIX | Behind Her Eyes
Set in present-day London, Behind Her Eyes (six episodes) is tricky to write about because it’s insane. I mean that as both compliment and criticism. Based on a popular novel, the thriller initially comes across as a riff on a 1980s’ Fatal Attraction-style potboiler about a risky affair, and you’re pretty sure you know where it’s going. You don’t.
Simona Brown plays Louise, the divorced single mom of an adorable boy and a part-time secretary at a psychiatry firm. After flirting with a stranger at a bar one night, she discovers the next day that the guy, David (Tom Bateman), is her new boss. The attraction persists. Which makes it all the more awkward when a chance encounter leads to Louise’s friendship with David’s alternately needy and scary wife, Adele (Eve Hewson). This can’t end well, and it doesn’t.
How this familiar romantic-triangle plot also comes to entail sleep terrors, lucid dreaming and astral projection, well, I’ll let you discover all the woo-woo stuff on your own. The show is ridiculously watchable, emphasis on “ridiculous.” My notes were littered with “WTF” and “Huh???” But I admire, for its sheer, nasty audacity, the double twist that ends the story. To achieve its impact, though, the limited series requires you not merely to suspend your disbelief, but strap it to a rocket and send it to the Milky Way.
AMAZON PRIME | Flack
Also London-set, the first two seasons of the dramedy Flack give Anna Paquin a juicier role to work with (and no hambone Southern accent) than her long stint on HBO’s True Blood did.
She plays Robyn, a publicist and fixer for the rich, famous and irresponsible, arranging a quick engagement for a secretly gay soccer star, or untangling the many affairs of a celebrated, married cookbook author. Of course Robyn herself isn’t immune to the lure of drugs and sex with clients, even though she’s married to the impossibly goodhearted guy you only find in shows like this. It’s Scandal meets The Devil Wears Prada (Robyn’s ice-queen boss is played by the great Sophie Okonedo and the bitchy Emily Blunt role is played by Lydia Wilson). I didn’t believe a bit of the episodes I watched, driven by overly snarky dialogue. But it’s a guilty pleasure, showing us the sort of glamorous city and lifestyle not available to most of us right now.
AMAZON PRIME | Tell Me Your Secrets
The sludgy misfire Tell Me Your Secrets (10 episodes) was developed and shot by TNT for weekly broadcast, but the stink of the show apparently hit the studio honchos’ noses, and they dumped it all on Amazon. A cynical soap opera banking on the popularity of true crime these days, it stars the terrific Lily Rabe, wasted, as Kate, the former girlfriend of a serial killer — and possibly his accomplice, though she has big gaps in her memory.
Paroled into the witness protection program and exiled to a shack on a Southern bayou, the newly named Emma tries to rebuild her life. But the grieving mother (Amy Brenneman in a grating, two-dimensional performance) of a woman who may have been one of the killer’s victims is determined to track down Kate/Emma. She’s aided in her quest by a paroled serial rapist (Hamish Linklater), who wants to make amends to society . . . though he may be a sexual time bomb just waiting to be triggered.
All of these elements could be compelling if the script and direction had intelligence, spark or surprise. In the right hands, it could even have made for a very dark comedy. But the show is cobbled from secondhand network TV tropes. It’s a shame for everyone involved, especially the viewer.
DISNEY+ | WandaVision
WandaVision is the first original Marvel Cinematic Universe series on Disney+ (nine episodes, with a new one dropping every Friday through March 5). It puts the Avengers’ Wanda Maximoff, aka Red Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and her nonhuman paramour Vision (Paul Bettany) in a suburban neighborhood straight out of television. Literally. Unknowing prisoners in what at first appears to be a meta examination of historic sitcoms, from episode to episode the series shrewdly mimics the tone, laugh tracks and visuals of Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Modern Family and other small-screen staples as Wanda slowly starts to realize there’s something wrong with her artificial world.
The Georgia-shot series shows us what Disney’s bottomless coffers can put on-screen. WandaVision is mainly fun for old TV buffs and for MCU fans eager to spot all the callouts and Easter eggs scattered throughout. It’s also — at least so far and with two more episodes to go — pretty forgettable the moment the credits role. It’s a little like taking a dip in a sleek infinity pool — you swim along but never reach much of a destination. Olsen is terrific in the lead, but what really keeps things interesting is supporting turns by Teyonah Parris and especially Kathryn Hahn as a nosy, witchy neighbor.
NETFLIX | I Care a Lot
The stand-alone I Care a Lot (118 minutes) is mainly distinguished by characters for whom it’s impossible to care. Rosamund Pike, amping up the shiny villainy from Gone Girl, plays Marla, a professional legal guardian whose grand scam, in cahoots with doctors and home-care administrators, is to lock vulnerable people up in nursing homes then proceed to liquidate all their assets for her own gain. Her plans go south when she targets a perfectly healthy woman (Dianne Wiest, with not enough screen time) with ties to a fellow in the Russian mafia (Peter Dinklage, formidably soft-voiced and terrifying). The first half of J Blakeson’s film is compelling, in a maddening way. Then the whole thing goes off the rails, turning into a high-concept action film that seems badly grafted onto the initial premise. But the performances, including one by Chris Messina as a shark lawyer, make it all eminently watchable.
NETFLIX | The Dig
The Dig (112 minutes) is also eminently watchable. The movie — following Carey Mulligan’s blistering, career-best performance in Promising Young Woman — shows off her range. Here she plays a tweedy widowed single mother in the British countryside who hires amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to find out what’s hidden in the man-made mounds on her estate. (Based on a novel, it’s a fictionalized account of the discovery at Sutton Hoo of two early medieval burial grounds, including a complete Anglo-Saxon ship.)
The movie may sound tasteful and stuffy, but it’s beautifully acted, also by Monica Dolan as Brown’s wife, and Lily James as a lovelorn young woman married unhappily to a much older archaeologist. By the end, The Dig has become a moving meditation on both long ago history and our own daily mortality. Strongly recommended.
NETFLIX | Capitani
In the European-small-town-soap-opera-with-murder-in-the-mix category (I need one of these pretty regularly), I enjoyed the Luxembourg-set Capitani (12 episodes, with English subtitles). Luc Schiltz plays the title role, a big-city inspector who (yes, you’re familiar with this plotline) comes to a small town to solve the death of a teenage girl, whose twin sister has gone missing. The fictional village is the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, but no one seems to have been in a position to know what happened the night Jenny (Jil Devresse, who also plays sis Tanja) fell or was pushed from a cliff.
Naturally, Capitani’s presence in the town isn’t accidental. We come to learn that the local innkeeper, Sofia, was previously known as Carla (Brigitte Urhausen), an erstwhile drug runner whose boss was killed 15 years ago with a firearm registered to Capitani, her then-boyfriend. Oops. Also, naturally, there’s a corrupt mayor who may be doing dirty, druggy things in an isolated forest cabin (he’s also the girls’ dad), a village idiot (or, as he would be now known, a differently abled locally sourced individual) who may have seen more than he can say, and the usual crime-procedural shenanigans. The show offers a vicarious trip to Europe, and with most episodes coming in under 30 minutes, it moves swiftly.
NETFLIX | Night Stalker; Crime Scene
In terms of real true crime and/or mystery, Netflix has two good documentary series. The better, and much scarier, is Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer (four episodes), chronicling the detective work that finally led to identifying rapist and murderer Richard Ramirez. In a very satisfying only-in-real-life scenario, authorities named Ramirez, but he was apprehended not by cops but by angry Los Angelenos, who swarmed him after recognizing him in their neighborhood. Disturbing but not salacious, the series does a good job of showing how hard work went into finding a psycho whose methodology was all over the place, and thus more difficult to profile.
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is also four episodes, but probably shouldn’t be. It’s the tale of Canadian tourist Elisa Lam, who checked in to the hotel next to L.A.’s skid row and disappeared, only to be found weeks later, drowned in a water tower on the roof. What happened to Elisa is less interesting than the internet cult that erupted around her. People around the globe pored over the CCTV footage of Lam acting oddly in and just outside a hotel elevator, linked her to a death-metal rocker who stayed (a whole year earlier) at the Cecil and spouted ever-increasing nonsense. Less a whodunit or a what-happened, Vanishing is most valuable as an indictment of the cloud of online conspiracy theories and rumor-mongering that have gotten our nation into deep trouble in recent years.
WANT MORE? Catch up with our February column, which looked at Lupin, Bridgerton and Sylvie’s Love, among other offerings.