In spring 2019, British TV creator Russell T. Davies — the guy who rebooted Doctor Who for us so gloriously back in 2005 — debuted a new science-fiction miniseries called Years and Years, for the BBC in the UK and HBO in the US. Its six one-hour episodes follow an extended family in Manchester, England, from the present day to the early 2030s as they navigate a decade full of tumult and upheaval on levels personal and political.
I’m obsessed with it. I’ve watched it three or four times now, most recently just last week. My urge to watch it over and over is part of what inspired this new feature here at FlickFilosopher.com that I’m calling The Binge, looking at TV series so compulsively watchable that you have no choice but to cram them into into your brain in their entireties as quickly as you can. And perhaps more than once. (The Binge will be about shortish series, I imagine; no one is binging 20 years of, I dunno, Law & Order. That would be pathological, right?)
This new but unsurprising human behavior — going on a TV bender, which you couldn’t have done so readily pre-streaming without spending a small fortune on DVD box sets — is the kind of thing that Davies might have predicted if he’d written Years and Years a decade ago. The casual ease and smart keying in on human psychology, including our ready embrace of fun new tech, with which Davies creates his near-future world here makes me think that we will look back on this in the 2030s and see wise prescience.
Years and Years presents only a possible decade ahead, but it’s difficult to see how the overall shape of what is to come in the real world will look radically different from what we experience here. The details will differ, naturally, but the general course may well be very similar. Here, populism turns to fascism across America and Europe, and irony turns on the so-called First World: we see white people thrust into the role of desperate refugees, fleeing despotism, floods, and radiation. It’s absolutely terrifying, completely harrowing, and very nearly soul-crushing.
And yet Years and Years is profoundly beautiful, too. The performances by the terrific cast are deeply engaging — you want to know this family. Even if sometimes they behave in contradictory ways, even when they are messy and complicated, they are ultimately real and human. As with Davies’s Doctor Who, this story is incredibly humane. Davies gives us a portrait of modern Britain that is as effortlessly diverse as reality, reflecting a fluidity of gender and race and sexuality and ability that characterizes actual modern Britain, no matter what right-wingers and “Rule, Britannia” colonialist throwbacks would like to think. (One scene features a passing character with an amputated arm. Her amputation is not relevant to the scene. That is how you do “diversity” onscreen. This is but one minor example.) Adult sibling relationships are all but ignored in pop culture, but Y&Y gets at the powerful connections that brothers and sisters can have, and at the intense disappointments those relationships can engender. Y&Y is about coping with tragedy and death, but it’s also, joyously, about the wonderful surprise of romantic love and the promise of new babies, about the delight and the power of intergenerational relationships, too.
So we have the 90something matriarch, Muriel Deacon (Anne Reid: The Snowman, Unfinished Song), who as Y&Y opens is rambling around an enormous old house in Manchester on her own, though regular family parties (contentious as they are, because families) bring everyone together. Her granddaughter Rosie Lyons (Ruth Madeley), happily a single mom, gives birth to her second child, Lincoln (at different ages: Aaron Ansari and Aiden Li), in episode one, which prompts a touch of philosophizing from Rosie’s brother Daniel (Russell Tovey: The Good Liar, Mindhorn). As he cradles the newest Lyons, Daniel’s brief monologue — pondering the disaster of Brexit and the looming American election that might see Donald Trump back in the White House for another four years — sets the stage for the six hours to come:
We used to think politics was boring…. I never thought I’d be scared of America…. If it’s this bad now, what’s it gonna be like for you?
And we’re off through the 2020s. There’s no COVID early on (though a “monkey flu” pandemic crops up in 2029!), but there is a big new movie, clearly a highly anticipated one, making its “worldwide premiere” in a way that fans can watch at home. (As with so much else radical and shocking here, we learn this through a tossed-off line of dialogue. Phones at the end of the decade will have “10-year batteries,” but good luck finding chocolate or bananas anymore. These facts have no bearing whatsoever on the plot. They’re merely bits of the progress and the loss the decade brings.) Davies depicts family and life milestones as irretrievably mixed up with politics and world events in a way that I cannot recall seeing in any pop-culture artifact before, yet which is of course inevitable. Eldest Lyons sibling Stephen (Rory Kinnear: Peterloo, Spectre) and his wife, Celeste (T’Nia Miller: Doctor Who) — the most financially successful of the family in 2019, both with careers in high-end banking — take multiple hits through the decade’s financial turmoil and the rise of AI, which turns out to do accounting just fine (another throwaway line of dialogue). Activist sister Edith (Jessica Hynes: The Fight, Paddington 2) is kept very busy pushing back against the rising fascism. Even Daniel, a humble housing officer for the local council, finds himself challenged via a European refugee crisis that leads him to a new friendship with Ukrainian-in-Britain Viktor Goraya (Maxim Baldry: Last Christmas).
The younger generation is primarily represented by Beth (Lydia West), daughter of Stephen and Celeste, a confused teen as the series opens (she would have been born post 9/11) and a much more confident young woman as it ends. She is the eyes through which we oldsters are reminded how readily we accept new technology when young, no matter how our elders may be worried that it’s unacceptably invasive or problematic. Though, to be fair, Muriel has no problem with “Signor,” an Alexa/Siri-type digital assistant, as well as other newfangled tech. (Signor is voiced by Glen McCready, making it an outlier among real such tech, which defaults to female voices; there are solid arguments as to why this is problematic, and it’s awesome to hear a default-male voice.)
In the background to the saga of the Lyons family, and yet unignorable and deeply impactful, is the rise and rule of Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson: How to Build a Girl, Men in Black: International), a far-right populist politician who comes from nowhere to have a huge impact on British politics and, increasingly as the decade passes, on everyday life. “Fake news” and deep-fake videos and widespread conspiracy theories are only the beginning of it. And there are hints of even more insidious, even more entrenched players at work behind her…
It’s all horrific and awful. And yet ultimately hopeful, too, which is why I keep returning to it: Years and Years suggests that if dystopia is just the world outside your door, inside your home, there is comfort and (mostly) good people. Davies does not shy away from stating outright that we are all complicit in the terrible state of the world, how “nice,” “ordinary” people do the footsoldier work of fascism, but that we will also, in the end, do what is needed to counteract the worst of it. I cling to the tenuous optimism that Years and Years offers.
There’s yet another throwaway bit early on, in which Daniel’s neighbor, Fran (Sharon Duncan-Brewster: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Doctor Who), who becomes a fast Lyons family friend, talks about how “the shape of stories” influences us for the better, and how “the need for them” is inescapable. I think about this as well. I cling to it. It is what informs my approach to film (and fiction). The fundamental interconnectedness of all things — a Douglas Adams–ism — that underlies the tapestry of the story here — I presume Davies is an Adams fan — is why I am always absolutely bawling my eyes out by the end of episode six, every time I watch this. Years and Years is perfect. It’s an unrivaled encapsulation of how I feel right now, as desperation and despair battle with hope and optimism for the future. How the willing complacency and resigned conformity I see around me may yet give way to outrage and action and humanity.
Will we have to slog through a nightmarish 2020s before we get to a 2030s that will be brighter and better? Honestly, I was already counting on a ghastly decade ahead. The idea that beyond that is something better? Yes, please.