HBO’s ‘Years and Years’ Combines Family Drama With Urgent Warnings of a Dytopian Future
If you think the world is going crazy now then HBO’s “Years and Years” has a fair warning for you: it’s only going to get worse. This maniacally brilliant, rather human work of political satire hits so close to home it could very well prove to be prophetic. Nothing escapes its keen eye whether it be our debates about gender, the rise of populist politics or the threat of nuclear war. Everything swirls like a mad crystal ball around an unnervingly convincing Emma Thompson, who plays a British politician with a style you may recognize from a certain other blonde newsmaker.
The 6-episode saga begins now, in 2019. We are introduced to the Lyons family, middle class denizens of the contemporary United Kingdom. There’s Stephen (Rory Kinnear), a financial adviser married to Celeste (T’Nia Miller), his brother Daniel (Russell Tovey), and sisters Edith (Jessica Hynes) and Rosie (Ruth Madeley). As their personal lives go through affairs, breakups, jobs and everything else daily living entails, the world is hurtling towards changes. Trump wins reelection in 2020 and by 2024 his tensions with China have resulted in nuclear war. In a world now dominated by a U.S. where Mike Pence is president, Russia has invaded Ukraine, the markets are crashing and the economy is doing zero favors for the common citizen. On the home front Stephen’s daughter Bethany (Lydia West) wants to identify as “transhuman,” meaning she wants to shed her physical self for a digital self, Daniel falls for a Ukrainian refugee named Viktor (Maxim Baldry) and one of the Lyons might be affected by fallout from the first nuke launched by the Donald. Into the political spotlight emerges Vivienne Rook (Thompson), a right-wing populist and leader of the independent “Four Star” party. Rude and crude, suggesting people take I.Q. tests before being allowed to vote, Rook is the politician the masses flock to in a moment of crisis.
Created by Russell T. Davies, who has helmed shows like “Doctor Who” and last year’s brilliant “A Very English Scandal,” “Years and Years” combines the sensibility of a classic TV family series with the dystopian predictions of science fiction. Imagine “This Is Us” meets “Black Mirror” and you kind of get a sense of what is achieved here with verve and originality. In the tradition of great British satire Davies doesn’t hold back and clearly spells out what is being commented on. His most biting creation is Vivienne Rook, played masterfully by Thompson like a combination of Trump and Marine Le Pen. She coolly says shocking things without flinching, like telling a TV audience she just “doesn’t give a fuck” about the Israel-Palestine conflict, Yemen or any other Middle East issue. When her political opponent just so happens to get decapitated by a drone on live TV she feigns sympathy but admits it wasn’t unexpected. Her Four Star party is an obvious reference to the far right Five Star Movement in Italy. Dialogue around the dinner table casually mentions that the Arctic has indeed melted, and Rosie can’t help but be swayed by Rook’s rhetoric on the television. Davies ingeniously keeps Rook as a distant figure on stage or television, capturing how today’s political firebrands, like Trump himself, hover over the lives of their people as if they were specters.
Like Charlie Brooker, Davies is very good at making the apocalyptic feel believable in down to earth terms. When the U.S. fires a nuke at China the Lyons hear about it through an emergency news alert on TV, they suddenly realize the world will change forever. For many of us the chaos of global affairs feels distant, like something happening far away yet still creating ripples that affect us. Such is reality for the Lyons. Daniel meets Viktor due to the Russian takeover of Ukraine, and their affair becomes harder than most because Viktor seeks refugee status, which is not at all that easy, even more so in 2024. Making matters more convoluted is the fact that Daniel already has a partner, Ralph (Dino Fetscher), who acts like their breaking up is fine, then covertly snaps incriminating photos of Viktor working at a gas station (which violates the conditions of his status in the country). Daniel will later host events in support of Viktor, endearingly, yet humorously describing all the trekking Viktor has to do from Eastern Europe to get back to England after being deported. Davies continuously weaves the wider political commentary with personal matters in effective, dramatic ways such as this. When Bethany announces her transhuman orientation, Celeste is against it until nuclear war with China breaks out and she tearfully tells Bethany she’s free to be whatever she wants. Bethany’s character is a vivid imagining of the youth of the near future, capable of hiding behind hologram-like emoji masks. Later in the season she will go to dangerous lengths to try and find ways to become fully electronic, venturing into the underground to find people promising to replace your organic parts with android ones. Other characters, like the Lyons’s grandmother, Muriel (Anne Reid), are written with a feisty edge. She’s old and forgetful, unafraid to give stinging commentary to everyone around her, even when it comes to people’s sexuality.
“Years and Years” defies the usual sci-fi show in that it feels quite immediate. Little of it has the sense of a distant, maybe impossible future like “Star Trek.” This is because it is also engaging drama on a human scale. It crystalizes our anxieties and global state, providing a fictional escape that nonetheless holds a mirror to where we are, and where we are going.
“Years and Years” premieres June 24 and airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.