It was considered a landmark moment in 1989 when two gay men were shown in bed on the ABC drama thirtysomething. Even though the network insisted one of the characters keep a foot on the floor at all times, numerous sponsors fled the show.

That was four years after Larry Kramer wrote the play A Normal Heart about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

This week on the same network, the season finale of Modern Family, one of TV's most popular shows, was built around the marriage of Mitch and Cam.

So it seems a curious time for HBO to be adapting Kramer's harrowing drama about the rise of AIDs among gay men in Manhattan (and the squeamish indifference of the straight community) in the early '80s.

This is a prestige production with a high-wattage cast. It's also unrelentingly grim. Of course, with this ghastly subject matter, how could it be anything but?

And, just to fully prepare you, there is a fair amount of nudity and rather graphic man-on-man sex.

The film starts in 1981 on Fire Island, a storied summer destination for gays off Long Island. The party doesn't last long before the first man (Jonathan Groff) collapses to the sand with dire, mysterious symptoms.

Mark Ruffalo plays Ned Weeks, a neurotic writer who becomes an early and avid advocate for awareness and treatment of what was initially called "gay cancer."

However angry and confrontational Ned is, you're still surprised when, halfway through the film, he is dismissed from the activist group he founded for being on a "colossal ego trip" and for exploiting the deaths of gay men during his frequent television appearances.

It's jarring because until then, he had clearly won every argument he engaged in. But that's the advantage of being a writer like Kramer: Your fictional proxy is always persuasive.

Everyone in the cast - which includes Taylor Kitsch and Julia Roberts - must at some point go through a massive meltdown. Most of them also get a soapbox moment. Ruffalo spends the entire film leaping between the two. There's so much earnest overacting in The Normal Heart that the more natural and relaxed performances really stand out. They belong to Matt Bomer (White Collar), who undergoes a startling physical transformation as his character sickens, and Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory.

Overscored and overwrought, The Normal Heart is a tough pill to swallow. The direction of Ryan Murphy (Glee) is piercingly staccato (and visually inconsistent). The tender moments don't resonate, and the fraught moments feel hysterical.

It's also histrionic. Kaposi's sarcoma lesions are so ubiquitous in the film that when a symptomatic Bomer takes the subway, it looks like a scene from The Walking Dead.

The Normal Heart serves best as a painful reminder of a horrific time three decades ago. Lest we forget in the glow of Mitch and Cam's honeymoon.


The Normal Heart

9 p.m. Sunday on HBOEndText

215-854-4552 @daveondemand_tv