In Our Blood review – a stirring musical drama about Australia’s Aids crisis
Sydney, 1983. “A city of refuge,” a chirpy narrator tells us in the opening shots of the ABC’s new drama In Our Blood. “Because every freak needs a home, a culture, a language.” Oxford Street brims with pleasure seekers of all denominations: hirsute hunks hand-in-hand with shirtless beefcakes, mouthy drag queens encrusted in glitter, shocks of coloured hair and fuzzy moustaches roaming a nightclub flanked by silvery curtains.
If you didn’t know any better, it could be a scene plucked from this year’s WorldPride – except Bob Hawke has just won his election, ending seven long years of Liberal leadership. There’s a change coming in with the breeze – or maybe it’s just the heady aroma of sweat and poppers spilling across the discotheque, where everyone’s gathered to usher in the new era with gay abandon.
Among the revellers is David (Tim Draxl), a political upstart who’s relocating far away from Sydney’s queer mecca in pursuit of his government ambitions. Well, just three hours away – but worlds apart from his longtime paramour Gabe (Oscar Leal), who’s moved all the way from Colombia to be with him. Before we know it, we’re bundled to Canberra, where David works as a staffer for Jeremy (Matt Day), the federal health minister. Theirs is a world of stultifying meetings and terrifying piles of paperwork, any hint of progress quickly subsumed by the patter of bureaucracy.
So begins a tale of two cities: the debaucheries of Oxford St against the rarefied dignities of Parliament House. We recognise the calamity that’s about to unfold – the virus that spreads across the oceans to devastate queer communities everywhere. But In Our Blood details a lesser-known section of that history: the Australian response to Aids, which saw an unprecedented collaboration between gay activist groups and both state and federal governments.
It certainly makes for stirring television. The obvious comparison is It’s A Sin: Russell T Davies’ acclaimed BBC miniseries which dramatised the same period in the UK. Like It’s A Sin, In Our Blood understands that queer joy is inseparable from its inverse: an acknowledgment of all we have lost. There’s a narrative dexterity to the show, slipping from the unbridled ecstasy of a dancefloor to the impending fear of the Aids crisis, often in the same breath.
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And there’s no greater fear than that of the unknown. Medical research is sluggish; the virus, at first, is dismissed as a condition that only affects the niche and licentious. David turns to a sexual health doctor, desperate for clues on how Aids is transmitted. The response: “Poppers, back rooms, saunas, rimming, fisting, anal, urine, semen, shared saliva, sweat, drugs, immune overload from constant bouts of STIs, take your pick.” But which one? “It could be one of them, it could be all of them.”
In Our Blood does well to evoke the resourcefulness of the queer community; shrugged away by official bodies, grassroots groups begin leafletting night clubs and saunas with raunchy how-tos on safe sex. But that same community grows unwieldy as the show continues, introducing so many characters that it’s difficult to invest in any singular storyline.
There’s Deb and Mish (Jada Alberts and Anna McGahan), the intrepid couple spearheading the gay liberation movement, turning their house into an activist headquarters and a safe haven for the lost and downtrodden. There’s Tim (Ryan Murphy), the zaniest of the bunch, permanently bedecked in a nun’s habit. And there’s the criminally underutilised Liam: a baby activist played by Wil King with the same charming feyness that made him a breakout star in the Gen Z satire Why Are You Like This.
These narrative strands, however wispy, at least make sense: the queer community is sprawling, a bounty of tales were lost to history. Much more baffling is the ensemble of characters who effectively function as a chorus. They bleed into scenes as waiters, bar patrons, and air hostesses – often to deliver some contextual factoid we could’ve easily gleaned without them – before melting into the backdrop.
In Our Blood is loosely based on a play by Adriano Cappelletta, who also created this show. You can imagine how the chorus could have worked on stage, but on screen, it is strangely lifeless – as if we were watching an educational video. Each time it happens, we’re reminded of its artifice.
We might say the same of the 1980s songs that punctuate In Our Blood – which, for a show ostensibly billed as a musical, are few and far between. Episodes are bookended by classic numbers, with cast and chorus breaking out into everything from Depeche Mode to Tears for Fears. These moments are bizarre, to be sure: imagine a group of street urchins crooning Smalltown Boy as a politician slinks by and you’ll get the idea. But one wishes In Our Blood leaned harder into its bizarro world and lived up to the sheer campiness of its premise. For a series about misbehaving queers, it’s awfully restrained.
In Our Blood airs on ABC, Sundays 8.30pm, until 9 April