What’s the worst that could happen?
Usually, that’s the kind of rhetorical question that precedes a monumentally stupid decision, like looking down the muzzle of a loaded shotgun or eating bus station shawarma. In the case of “Years and Years,” however, it seems to have been the question that Russell T Davies asked himself before penning this six-part dystopian drama.
“Years and Years” tells the story, over the course of 15 turbulent years, from 2019 through to 2034, of the Lyons family, as they deal with personal tragedy, political upheaval, economic chaos and technological advances. The similarities to another near-future dystopian TV show are obvious, but, unlike “Black Mirror,” “Years and Years” manages to combine its bleak vision for the world with several absorbing narratives and characters.
Chief among them is Vivienne Rook, played by the always-impressive Emma Thompson, an outspoken businesswoman who launches a political career on the back of divisive, populist policies. Rook’s character is an amalgam of the worst politicians out there: a dash of Nigel Farage, a pinch of Trump and a splash of Rodrigo Duterte. At one stage, she even proposes disenfranchising anyone with an IQ below 70.
For those obsessives looking for an Israeli angle – and they never have to look too hard – “Years and Years” provides one in the very first episode. Rook becomes an overnight sensation when she appears on a television talk show and, asked about the situation in the Middle East, responds by saying that she “doesn’t give a fuck.” When she goes on to launch a political party, she calls it the Four Star Party, to reflect the way the newspapers reported her comment – and clearly a reference to the populist Five Star Movement in Italy.
The Lyons family drama unfolds against the backdrop of global events, from the death of Queen Elizabeth and another banking crisis to the imposition of martial law in Ukraine and China’s construction of an artificial island and a military base in disputed waters.
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These international events impact on various members of the Lyons family: When President Trump fires a nuclear bomb at the Chinese island, for example, political activist Edith Lyons, played by Jessica Hynes, was in Vietnam and was exposed to high levels of radiation. When an American investment bank collapses, Steven and Celeste (played by Rory Kinnear and T’Nia Miller) lose the proceeds from the sale of their house and are left penniless. Similarly, the political crisis in Ukraine, where homosexuality has been criminalized, forces Daniel Lyons (Russell Tovey) to take desperate measures to rescue his partner, a Ukrainian refugee.
If all this sounds a little dizzying, rest assured that you are in capable storytelling hands. Davies’ development of plot, narrative and character is impeccable. He manages to paint an extraordinarily broad landscape of a world spiraling out of control, while maintaining enough detail to ensure that his familial portrait remains authentic and engrossing.
And, unlike other dystopian techno-nightmares, which too often rely on inconceivable innovations to sledgehammer home their point, “Years and Years” is far more subtle and humorous. When Bethany, one of the teenage members of the Lyons family, announces that she is “trans,” her parents mistakenly assume she means that she’s transsexual. When they learn that she’s trans-human and wants to upload her mind to the cloud, leaving behind her corporeal prison, they are appalled and understandably confused.
“Years and Years” works because of its seamless integration of the various narratives. The political events we see unfolding on various television screens are not just satirical tidbits to keep the viewer entertained or anxious. They are organically part of the overall story; when authorities erect a fence around a neighborhood with a high crime rate, Rosie Lyons finds herself trapped in her apartment with her two young children; when Stephen gets a new job working for an old school friend, he finds himself participating in a meeting with high-level government officials, discussing the construction of clandestine concentration camps.
Rather unexpectedly, given the premise and the scale of the show, “Years and Years” is also very funny. But anyone who is familiar with Davies’ previous work – “Queer as Folk,” “Doctor Who” and the superb “A Very British Scandal” – would have expected nothing less. His lightness of touch is evident throughout: the filters that once only worked on Snapchat and similar apps now work in real life, so kids sit around the dinner table with kitten ears and whiskers; and the reactions when Stephen discovers that his father, the absent patriarch of the Lyons family, called his first-born son in his new family Steven, are priceless.
There’s one line, repeated several times over the course of six episodes, which resonates particularly strongly. It could be a tagline for the entire show. The entire century, in fact. “I used to be bored by politics,” Daniel says. “Those were the days.”