Have you seen “It’s a Sin”? The AIDS miniseries can be hard to watch, especially as we cope with a different pandemic and the inequalities that have led some communities to be struck hardest by it. The five-parter, currently on HBO Max, brings back some of the rage and sorrow of the AIDS crisis, whose first cases were reported by the CDC 40 years ago this June.
But still, it’s a worthwhile watch, as it follows a small group of friends through the 1980s. Written by Russell T. Davies, whose credits include “Queer as Folk,” “A Very English Scandal,” and “Years and Years,” the story sometimes seems a bit generic, featuring characters we’ve seen a few times before. But the reach of the group portrait it paints, as it tracks the joys of coming out, the early denials of AIDS, and, of course, the tragic outcomes, is resonant and powerful. Each episode jumps ahead a few years, as in “Years and Years,” so that, alas, you’re never quite sure which characters will still be alive in the next chapter.
I’ve written about the series already, but I’m bringing it up again to mention an excellent 2018 novel that covers some of the same ground. Set in Chicago, “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai does great justice to those dark days, when gay men lived in terror of test results and watched their friends and lovers die in cordoned-off hospital rooms. The story toggles between the 1980s and 2015, portraying a well-drawn group of friends going through the crisis back then, and a more contemporary look at the life of the sister of one of the dead friends.
I don’t want to say too much, but it all blends together gracefully and movingly, and, unlike most AIDS fiction, it links everything to the present tense. If you did see “It’s a Sin” and feel compelled to know — or remember — what happened, “The Great Believers” is a perfect next step.