At the end of the first episode of Years and Years, two separate images of conflagrations, both coming on the heels of a global cataclysm, make clear what Emma Thompson’s member of Parliament will later state outright: the world, circa 2024, is on fire. The sense that British society is collapsing under the weight of myriad modern burdens is omnipresent in this six-part miniseries premiering June 24 on HBO. More chilling still, those issues aren’t the stuff of crazy science-fiction; rather, they’re extensions of the very real, very familiar, very urgent problems our planet faces today.
A coproduction with StudioCanal (which aired it earlier this year on BBC One), Years and Years is a portrait of the Manchester-based Lyons family, and the ways in which it’s affected by chaotic and terrifying social and political forces. It’s a snapshot of a near future that sprang directly from our own present—one rife with mounting crises involving refugees, fascism, environmental collapse, terrorism and economic inequality. At its best, which is often, this vision of tomorrow from Russell T. Davies—creator of the original Queer as Folk, and the showrunner who revitalized Doctor Who back in 2005—plays like a bracing “what if” scenario told from ground level. And if its balance of realism and out-there fantasy eventually falters, it remains an unsettling speculative saga of tomorrow, and the vigilance required to prevent the destruction of everything we hold dear.
“I just don’t understand the world anymore,” proclaims businesswoman Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson) on television at the start of Years and Years, and the profane populist rage she peddles—epitomized by her ensuing on-air expletive, which earns her instant notoriety—is the key to her subsequent rise to political power. With a cheery smile and vulgar attitude that resonates with besieged, angry Brits, Thompson is superb as a scary proto-Trumpian celebrity huckster with authoritarian impulses, locating the showman’s gift for riling up the masses with innuendo, double-talk, and hate that’s central to our current president’s “success.”
Rook’s coming-out splash takes place in 2019, as does our introduction to the Lyons clan: banker Stephen (Rory Kinnear), his accountant wife Celeste (T’Nia Miller) and their daughters Bethany (Lydia West) and Ruby (Jade Alleyne); housing officer Danny (Russell Tovey) and his soon-to-be-husband Ralph (Dino Fetscher); political activist Edith (Jessica Hynes); and wheelchair-bound school cafeteria chef and mother of two Rosie (Ruth Madeley). These characters keep in touch through means both direct and virtual, the former courtesy of regular get-togethers at the house of their grandmother Muriel (Anne Reid), and the latter via Amazon Echo-like devices used for incessant group phone calls.
Technology binds the Lyonses, but maintaining connections, and cohesiveness, is a difficult task as the years speed ahead, with Davies using birthdays as occasions for rapid-fire montages of TV broadcasts that underline the Earth’s descent into hell-in-a-hand-basket turmoil. Trump wins reelection and continues on his border wall crusade; the Chinese manufacture a new island; the weather grows worse and worse; and right-and left-wing extremists come to dominate the news—including Rook, whose shtick sweeps the country. Years and Years casts an eye on how these headline-making incidents shape the reality of its protagonists. Initially, at least, it’s Danny who’s hit hardest by current events, since his work at a burgeoning facility for Ukrainian refugees (fleeing their homeland after a Russian invasion) leads to an encounter, and affair, with Viktor (Maxim Baldry) that will shape much of what’s to come.
“The world keeps getting hotter and faster and madder, and we don’t pause, we don’t think, we don’t learn. We just keep racing to the next disaster. And I keep wondering, what’s next? Where are we going? When is it ever going to stop?” asks a furious Edith on TV, and such questions resound throughout Years and Years, which operates as a fast-track view of our forthcoming decline. Davies expertly uses Rook’s cult-of-personality ascension to plumb likeminded leaders’ appeal, all while wielding it as a contextual umbrella for numerous calamities, including a banking industry collapse, wildlife extinctions, trade wars and dwindling food supplies. In such a milieu, which feels eerily tethered to our own, it’s chilling, if apt, to hear Danny voice amazement at everyone’s sudden passionate interest in politics compared to a few years ago, when the news seemed “boring.”
Also striking a disquietingly relevant chord is the Black Mirror-ish notion of “transhumanism,” an evolutionary movement—desired by Bethany—that grafts technological capabilities into flesh, and at its apex entails ditching your body to become a digital consciousness. These and many more ideas litter Years and Years, and inform the choices of its characters. Still, no matter the inventiveness of its on-the-horizon concepts, the show thrives because of its likable group of relatives, whose hang-ups and problems—regarding deceased and estranged parents; adulterous affairs; financial and professional catastrophes; and bitter resentments about each other’s choices—remain of chief importance.
Ongoing world issues inform, and are informed by, the Lyonses’ day-to-day struggles making ends meet, dating, and maintaining unity in a Great Britain splitting apart at the seams. That’s most powerfully felt at the end of the first episode, courtesy of a nuclear strike by America against China. Yet that’s just one of a series of seismic occurrences for the family, as Danny endeavors to aid Viktor after he’s deported from immigration-restricted Britain (and Europe), Stephen and Rosie chart new employment courses after losing their jobs, and Edith—stricken with lethal radiation poisoning after filming the aftermath of the nuke detonation—moves home to continue her anti-establishment work.
It’s that latter thread that proves the peskiest element of Years and Years, since it increasingly transforms the material into a melodramatic espionage thriller in which these ostensibly ordinary people wind up playing vital roles in national affairs. That shift is all the more frustrating for exposing certain subplots—which initially came across as thematically relevant supplements—as merely long-game plot devices for fanciful, phony Doctor Who-style climactic developments.
Nonetheless, if Davies ultimately steers his story into more comforting genre territory, his latest is energized by a stellar cast (Kinnear, Tovey and Miller in particular) that makes the Lyons clan worth rooting for—even at its worst. In their capable hands, these characters feel not like tokens but, instead, like believable components (and byproducts) of a complex multicultural civilization. A near-term nightmare that doubles as a rallying cry for politicized engagement, Years and Years recognizes that we’re all part of a larger ecosystem, and thus not only capable of affecting change, but obligated to meet the many challenges that lie ahead—before it’s too late.