'Years and Years': TV Review

It shouldn't work, but it's magnificent.
6/24/2019

Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear and Russell Tovey star in this ambitious HBO series from Britain, which uses Trump, populism, Brexit, racism and all kinds of modern toxicity to tell a harrowing but human story.

There is a searing quality to HBO's latest series, the BBC One import Years and Years, a relentless and depressing though often funny and acutely smart take on the here and now of blind populism, Trumpism, technology and politics.

With aggressive creativity, writer and creator Russell T. Davies (A Very English Scandal, Doctor Who) manages to leap over three very difficult hurdles almost immediately — commenting on current events, tackling the horror of Donald Trump and including elements of technology paranoia that will draw knee-jerk comparisons to Black Mirror (because of the ease and laziness of the comparison, but also because of how Black Mirror has dominated the sci-fi/tech genre).

Spanning 15 years into the future lives of a disparate, extended family in Britain, Years and Years spends the first hour jumping around feverishly and compellingly among those years, setting the stage for a series that is the latest but most direct exploration of Trump, America and totalitarianism masquerading as populism.

This time it's not nodding to or winking at the connection as other series like Veep and The Man in the High Castle have, but embracing it as a dramatic construct: Trump not only wins re-election but launches a nuclear missile at a fabricated Chinese island housing military operations in disputed territory; Russia takes over Ukraine by force; there's a stock-market and banking meltdown; technology has embraced "trans-humanism"; and not only is the world too lazy and late on environmental issues (the rainforests are depleted, the North Pole has melted), nobody really seems to give much of a damn once it happens.

Years and Years is about a lot of things, acceptance and complacency brought on by material gain and technological advantage being just one of them; so is an acceptance of political leaders who pander to citizens too stupid to check facts and too misled into the belief that facts (and science) aren't real or infallible, thus confirming their worldview.

The challenge in a series like Years and Years is not kicking out at the predictable backlash from Trumpers, climate deniers, racists and fascists — for numerous reasons they are not the target audience — but in taking what everybody else has been feeling in the past few years and turning it into compelling drama rather than a soap-box lecture. And that's what Davies gets most right most of the time, even when his rage — and it's his and everybody else's sense of outrage that he's tapping into — necessitates that he lean into themes that validate progressive, rational and empathetic concerns.

He's preaching to the choir here — Years and Years very clearly being a WTF?! reaction to Trump and the American drift. But Davies has managed to package it in a wildly entertaining, moving and, yes, sometimes funny look at a world gone mad.

The series revolves around the extended Lyons family in England. 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 to Ralph (Dino Fetscher); and Ralph rather quickly starts buying into ignorant claims he finds on the internet (there are really no such things as germs) and even hints at believing the earth is actually flat. Because Daniel and Stephen are the most educated and rational in their family, they are galled by recent events, particularly Britain becoming infatuated with a no-nonsense businesswoman turned political candidate, Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), who encapsulates the Brexit/Trump populism stirring in England (right down to Rook being wealthy but using working-class soundbites that appeal to "ordinary people").

As Daniel complains about Ralph's flat-earth revelations to Stephen on the phone, he notes that we are regressing as people — 9/11 conspiracies and such are not even the worst of it anymore. People are buying into much dumber things. "The human race is getting more stupid right in front of our eyes," Daniel bemoans. He's got the husband to prove it.

But it's here, on Daniel's call with his brother Stephen, where we get the most extended of Davies' dialectics: "It's like we went too far," Stephen says. "We imagined too much. We sent all those probes into space. We went to the very edge of the solar system. We built the Hadron Collider and the internet. We painted all those paintings and wrote all those great songs and then — pop! Whatever we had, we punctured it. And now it's all collapsing."

Thompson is fantastic as Rook, saying she doesn't give a fuck about Israel and Palestine and other such jarring proclamations to the staid English TV audience. She wants her garbage picked up on time and people to stop blocking the sidewalk with their cars — real, simple and local problems that "ordinary people" are vexed over. 

Her message catches the ears of Rosie (Ruth Madeley), the youngest of the Lyons, who has spina bifida and two kids from different men, a single mother struggling to make ends meet. We learn later that medical technology has cured spina bifida, but Rosie says it's only the billionaires who will benefit from new ways to weed out defects and create "perfect" people. 

Edith (Jessica Hynes) is the older sister, a political activist who has spent her life fighting every progressive fight on multiple continents. She's in Vietnam when the nuclear bomb from the U.S. hits Hong Sha Dao, the manufactured island/military base off the coast of China, killing 45,000 people and, at least for a brief time, making everyone believe the world is about to end. 

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. This is Davies' sneaky way of celebrating family, no matter how much they all disagree; it's an element easy to miss in a series that has so much creative insanity and big ideas floating about.

"God, the world got complicated," one of the Lyons muses, in maybe the biggest understatement of the series. But everything works because it creeps up on you (and them) — horrible situations happen and then people adapt in small ways, prepping for the next issue, but in many ways creating shoulder-shrugging acceptance that nothing can be done about it (which is how all the problems started in the first place, of course).

Ignorance, parochial politics, selfishness, racism, the erosion of civil rights — Davies and director Simon Cellan Jones (both are also executive producers) have crafted a world where they can tell dramatic stories that illustrate these themes without dropping anvils on the heads of viewers. That might be the biggest achievement in an inventive, agitated but thoughtful series — that its outrage at what has become of us doesn't just appear as a dramatic rendition of a Twitter rant, but instead embeds multiple stories filled with emotion to look at such fallout.

There's a wonderfully realized moment, amid disbelief that a nuclear bomb has been launched, before it hits, and anxiety about the Chinese response, etc. Davies has Daniel race out of Muriel's home, where the Lyons have all come to celebrate a birthday, and he leaves his dumb-ass husband Ralph behind. Daniel had met Ukrainian refugee Viktor (Maxim Baldry) at the temporary housing camp he helps oversee and the sparks and attraction were real, but not acted upon. As the world is about to end, the choice is clear: Don't stay with someone you are miserable with — find happiness, another underlying theme here.

The aforementioned technology paranoia elements are, happy to note, clever and creatively done. When Stephen and Celeste realize that troubled daughter Bethany is hiding her social anxiety behind full-facial Snapchat-like "faces" of dogs and babies, they find evidence of "trans" searches on her computer. As they fully support Bethany and assure her they will be there for her, the revelation isn't that she wants to change genders — she wants to be "transhuman," a new movement where people become fully digital and eventually live forever not in their bodies but as data. It works mostly because, as a teenager trying to figure out who she is and struggling to fit in, the idea isn't far-fetched to Bethany.

There's a number of screen-addiction elements that the show doesn't even comment on directly, it just shows, to simple effect. A Siri/Alexa device known as Signor links the family together for extended talks. 

But flesh-and-blood relationships are the vehicle that make Years and Years work and convey Davies' darker messages. Though the series sometimes goes all in on a joke, as when it's revealed that in 2026 there are still familiar pop culture franchises, like Toy Story: Resurrection, but in this one Woody is burned to death and kids might have nightmares if they watch. 

On top of the nuanced work from Davies and Jones, the six-part series boasts outstanding performances. Looking through the opposite end of the telescope at present (and controversial) history is often a recipe for disaster, but Years and Years is magnificently agile in the creativity it uses to make it all cohere. 

Cast: Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear, Russell Tovey, T'Nia Miller, Jessica Hynes, Anne Reid, Maxim Baldry, Ruth Madeley, Lydia West, Jade Alleyne, Dino Fetscher
Created and written by: Russell T. Davies
Directed by: Simon Celan Jones
Premieres: Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)