Critic's Notebook: HBO's 'Years and Years' Is Unsettling, But Needs to Be Seen

In all likelihood, when the year-end lists for best TV of 2019 are submitted, Years and Years will be on many of them. The HBO limited series has Emma Thompson in a key, refreshing role; it is so far the best series on television at directly tackling the fallout of the Trump presidency and the rise of totalitarianism masquerading as populism; it's arguably one of the most creative looks at the future and technology paranoia this season, overshadowing the king of that genre, Black Mirror. The level of ambition and smarts and the wonderful writing in Years and Years sets it apart, and there are emotionally touching, superb performances throughout.

And yet, as the series had its finale on HBO on Monday, one thing became very clear: It might be "too soon" and "too triggering" a series to currently get the credit that will eventually come to it.

When I was reviewing Years and Years, I was devouring early episodes (there are only six). I told a friend — smart, politically awake, passionate — that this series could not be more her style and that she was going to love it.

Not long after, she told me she lasted 18 minutes. It was too hard to watch, too painful, too soon.

Of course, I had told other friends, as well. One by one, the feedback came in. "I can't," said one. "It just totally stressed me out." Another: "Look, I tried. I got to the fourth episode. It was great and terrible, if that makes sense. I couldn't go on." Another said it was triggering, but that she would absolutely go back, once Donald Trump and the headlines in the real world — not the near-future world that Years and Years depicts — were washed away, replace by more hope, happier moments, less stress. I wondered how long that would be — a year? Two years? More?

"I don't know, but it better not prove true." 

Ah, that's the worry. That these are your worst fears played back to you in a scripted dramatic series before they even happen. Predictive depression.

Years and Years focuses on one large, extended family in Britain, the Lyons clan. Stephen (Rory Kinnear) is the eldest, a financial advisor in the banking industry who lives in London with his wife Celeste (T'Nia Miller) and their biracial daughters Bethany (Lydia West) and Ruby (Jade Alleyne). 

Stephen's brother Daniel (Russell Tovey) is a housing officer for the government, gay, married. Edith (Jessica Hynes) is the older sister, a political activist who has spent her life fighting every progressive fight on multiple continents. The youngest is Rosie (Ruth Madeley), who has spina bifida and two kids from different men, a single mother struggling to make ends meet. Lastly, there is Muriel (Anne Reid), the grandmother who lives alone in a ramshackle house in Manchester where everybody gathers once a year, and then more frequently as the situation in the world begins to deteriorate.

What creator and writer Russell T. Davies (A Very English Scandal, Doctor Who) has so brilliantly imagined in this BBC/HBO co-production is a future where Trump not only wins a second term, he nukes a Chinese military base before leaving. If that is already raising the hairs on your neck — too close to a possible reality — you probably won't like that Mike Pence is the next American president after Trump. These aren't really spoilers. The bad news (for sane people, not just Democrats and liberals) just pours out of Years and Years in so many ways — news scrolls you don't really have time to read, quick references characters make as the series pushes ever further ahead in time (was that a reference to the polar ice caps melting?); simply listing the bits that make you feel slightly sick to your stomach doesn't do justice to the unsettling feeling that comes over you and seemingly never leaves.

What's so astonishing about the ambition here is that Davies is in a full sprint to exponentially unleash a bevy of ideas about what happens from this very moment to many years in the future as one horrible domino topples into another — and splits off into 15 different lines of horrifying dominos clicking and falling. As a viewer you are constantly on your heels. It's not one bad vision of an all-too-possible future; it's a multitude of them.

To make it through each episode does feel, in some ways, like survival. Unless you're a Trump lover, this is a nightmare what-if documentary of the near future. It is, to put it mildly, not a binge-friendly show. That would be corrosive to your soul and psyche.

In fact, the last of my friends to comment on Years and Years did so by text, having just watched the penultimate episode. To say something "bad" happens in each episode is to really under-sell what's going on, but Years and Years succeeds because it's a family and character drama, not just an angry screed that a very fed-up Davies decided to write. So events involving certain characters in the fifth episode put the last friend over the edge. In terminology familiar to the Brits, the episode was gutting.

If at this point you're thinking, "I will never watch this," please reconsider. Now that all six episodes are available — again, I don't think anyone should or could binge — each episode doesn't have to sit with you for a week. You can move on to the next and find out what happened. The character-driven events the family lives through are not necessarily easy to take, but there's a real love among the characters, and real humor — very necessary humor as you might imagine — reverberates around them. 

It might help to watch the whole thing while keeping your eye on an interesting ongoing trait of the Lyons family: They adapt, for better or worse, to the changing times. For example, the shock of Trump sending a real nuke toward China puts you in an immediate "this could happen" moment, but it's also telling to watch how each member of the Lyons clan, gathered at Muriel's house, reacts to the potential end of the world. Again, you will likely give some thought to how you would. But in short order, the world has moved on, we've accepted what happened, the lives lost and how the Chinese stood down, at least for now.

As the Lyonses learn to cope with each new awful bit of news in the world, the trick Davies is employing is that acceptance is death on so many fronts. This is where Thompson's character, Viv Rook, is so deftly used — first introduced as a fringe candidate a la Trump, a successful businesswoman who is able to spout the aphorisms of the working class without them fully realizing how they're being played (not many people stop to think how Rook, so rich, can be one of them). But by keeping Rook as a sideline player, then inching her ever closer and in clever ways, like the chess piece that she is, she soon gains more and more power over the course of the miniseries. It's the specialty of Years and Years to quicken the events of the future and show how a beaten-down citizenry responds, over that time, with complaints but acceptance.

Part of the reason my friends kept bailing on Years and Years, I think, is that real news events were happening in line with the series as if Davies had predicted the future. The New York Times said the electoral college could deliver another Trump victory. Immigration abuses — which play heavily in Years and Years — became ever more horrible to witness. Hell, even Boris Johnson becoming prime minister carried echoes of Rook. Over and over this was happening. If you were following the news closely and following Years and Years weekly — even over a mere six weeks — if felt like you were drowning. No wonder they all gave up.

But eventually Years and Years should be watched. It helps to push through it, knowing there is some light that must come from all of the darkness. And it's no spoiler to say that some light does shine through in the final episode, and your results may vary on whether it was bright enough to make the trip worth it. I think in many ways the finale was the most rushed-feeling of all the episodes; it's also, because it takes place so far in future, ending in 2034, the most futuristic (don't forget that Davies has quite a sci-fi background). That's a long time to have endured the show's spiral of events, as they started in 2019; the relief will seem too little, too late for some viewers. But there is futuristic feel-good love being spread through technology as well, so it would be wrong to call this a miniseries without hope.

I do fear that even this column, trying as it might to prep you for a worthy challenge, will fall short. It may be that just like the long future it plays with, Years and Years is something we download into our minds somewhere in the distance, when we have better memories to soften the impact.