TV review

HBO’s ‘Years and Years’—with its near-future, personal and global dramas—is the best thing on TV

The Daily Beast

July 21, 2019

Russell T. Davies has created a masterpiece, with a British family facing an alarming near-future presided over by Emma Thompson as a fascist prime minister.

If you are a Years and Years fan, or you intimately know one, you will have made or seen an intensely stricken face last Monday night at 10 p.m.

This week, every time you have thought or talked about Years and Years (a lot), the stricken face returns. In its fourth episode on HBO, this excellent series killed off one of its main characters.

Any Russell T. Davies fan, or indeed any Years and Years fan, will have been both not shocked and surprised—the writer and show are adept twist-and-turners—and yet hugely shocked and surprised, because the death was stark and its immediate aftereffects even starker.

Years and Years is unlike any science fiction, or piece of futurism, on TV. It is set in the future, but the near-future, a recognizable, all too politically and culturally plausible future. Right-wing nationalism is on the rise globally, President Trump is in his second term, banks are going bust, immigration is being curtailed everywhere, technology means families can have collective conversations in multiple locations. Nuclear explosions happen, the world stutters on. A bigger reckoning seems inevitable; only the scale of horror, the pace of change, and the extremities of ideologies remain unknowns.

Years and Years suggests we should expect the most extreme, and hold on for dear life. The genius of Davies is to imagine this macro-turmoil so believably and relatably—just as he has ambitiously realized before in shows as diverse as Queer as Folk and Dr. Who. Davies is a master of tonal whiplash: Years and Years ricochets between comedy and tragedy, wit and despair, family chit-chat and life and death decisions.

We see phone technology implanted in bodies, environmental catastrophe, growing bigotry, and the ascendancy of Emma Thompson’s far-right PM Viv Rook—a scarily spot-on mash-up of Trump, Katie Hopkins, Boris Johnson, and insert your right-wing provocateur of choice here—to make the dystopia everyday and human.

Caught up in these events, just trying to make their way in the world, is the Lyons family—with redoubtable granny matriarch Muriel (Anne Reid) at the head—who, from losing large sums of money to falling in love at great cost, find it impossible to escape the world-altering events beamed into their televisions every night.

Only Davies could convincingly storyline the epic, ill-fated trip across Europe of Daniel (Russell Tovey) and Ukrainian refugee Viktor (Maxim Baldry) alongside the adultery of Stephen (Rory Kinnear), who has long been cheating on his wife Celeste (T’Nia Miller) with Elaine (Rachel Logan).

That adultery was revealed to the family via one of its collective phone calls; as was the death of Daniel, Davies writing intricately the shock, horror, humor, disbelief, and panic of each player. When Stephen moved out of the house, we don’t think about futurism or geo-political frailties; all we saw was a shamed man wobbling off his bicycle loaded down with his luggage.

Bliss did not await Stephen at Elaine’s place: Davies’ wonderful writing saw her insist that Stephen leave early every morning, so she could have time by herself to exercise. Could he maybe just go to a café and make himself scarce, she ordered. Suddenly all the heat of their affair went cold.

And then there was Daniel and Viktor, who just wanted the simplest of things: to be together. But first, there was the jealousy of Daniel’s ex Ralph (Dino Fetscher), who shopped Viktor to the authorities. And so a dizzying immigration nightmare of enforced separation and desperate bids to make it home began.

Davies charted all too believably the emotional, financial, and practical extremes of their odyssey. And then the tragedy, with Daniel’s death. Now what for Viktor, and (for this viewer) will Ralph’s villainy ever be exposed? He just helped kill his ex-partner.

This focus on the big and small should jar in Years and Years; it could feel forced and portentous. But Years and Years makes both the personal political and the political personal, and also plausibly shows how world events do indeed shape our daily lives.

Watch the characters’ responses to Rook: First, she seems just funny, some hail her as straight-talking, the far-left, and possibly radioactively poisoned, Edith (Jessica Hynes) sees her as smashing established order. But Daniel could immediately see her fascism, and her gaslighting wink-winks to the nation.

Rook’s fictional ascendancy is occurring at the same time as Johnson’s likely election as British prime minister—a proven liar, schemer, and buffoon who cloaks his ruthless opportunism in the ruffled clothing and RP enunciation of a bumbling posh Brit.

There are two episodes left of Years and Years. Davies’ accomplishment is that we have absolutely no idea what will happen. The audacity of killing off a main character sealed that. But we will believe in the destiny of the Lyons family, no matter how extreme it seems.

Get ready for some more stricken expressions, as we watch the big and small worlds Russell T. Davies has so richly imagined in freefall—and how near, too near, they are to our own. If we care to hear it, if it is not too late, Years and Years is as much caution and warning as it is compulsive drama.