From Queer As Folk to Doctor Who, the writing chops of Russel T Davies aren’t in question, and - especially with the original UK QAF series - he has helped bring some truly groundbreaking shows to fruition. His latest project looks at the unfolding AIDS crisis though the eyes of young, queer Londoners.
Amid sexual discovery as small-town young adults arrive in the Big City, the looming sense of dread grows and an evocative 80s playlist soundtracks gut-wrenching developments. Although not written with this in mind, the parallels with the COVID pandemic are hard to ignore - there are deniers, desperate ‘cures’ as people try anything to survive, social outrage and political clashes.
The protagonists are fighting homophobic families, societal acceptance and the existential threat of a virus that politicians are trying to ignore. It’s in turns joyous, provocative and devastating. The analogue panic of pre-internet information networks is a stark reminder that in the 1980s, going bar-to-bar with leaflets was the way that people sought to protect each other. Marches had to be organised by phone and letter. Disinformation took more effort to counter. Volunteer-run phone lines were vital.
It’s not a perfect show. Tropes are simplified and there’s some reductive views as the script tries to fit the intricacies of a huge public health emergency into five episodes. Some of the character arcs are flawed, but the questions it raises - and especially seeing the same frustrating political mistakes that have been made in the past year with COVID - are important, and approached critically, it’s a worthwhile watch.
Star cameos from Neil Patrick-Harris and Stephen Fry elevate some of the best scenes, and the young cast are consistently engaging. It’s a tough story, and it’s one from which we're still learning lessons.