We live in, to put it lightly, tumultuous times. No matter your political or economic stance, the state of our world has made it into daily conversation for better or worse (guess which is more often). Over the past decade it’s therefore become only fitting that entertainment has steered towards social satire, with the likes of Black Mirror managing to encompass the technological trend that our species is gearing towards. But whilst Charlie Brooker’s work and countless others froth at the mouth when given the opportunity to show us our own failings, writer Russell T Davies (Doctor Who (2005-2010), Queer as Folk, Cucumber) has been leading the way by eclipsing his peers by, ironically, never losing the sense of humanity within such storytelling. Years and Years follows the London/Manchester-based Lyons family from one crucial night in 2019 through the next fifteen years of their history, occasionally glimpsing the changing world around them through terrifying and utterly-believable montages sporadically placed throughout the series.
On paper the show sounds as ambitious as anything, yet it’s the restraint Davies shows in his storytelling that casts a bigger impact here. No matter how dark the world around them gets – we always find a way back to another Lyons family reunion… and things get pretty dark. Simultaneous to the family we’re also shown the uprising of businesswoman-turned-politician Vivian Rook (Emma Thompson, having the time of her life), a figure whose real-life parallels will forever be up for debate, as she finds her way to being Prime Minister by echoing the apparent thoughts and attitude of the common people. It’s hardly subtle, of course, but Davies’ dialogue more than makes up for that. In fact, such is the ensemble cast of Years and Years that it’s difficult to think of any underutilised characters at all.
The matriarch of the family, Muriel (Anne Reid), lives alone in her mansion-sized house, welcoming her trio of grandchildren Stephen (Rory Kinnear), Rosie (Ruth Madeley) and Daniel (Russell Tovey) whilst their political activist sister Edith (Jessica Hynes) travels the world doing what she can to save it. In the same way Davies started his Doctor Who tenure by telling the story from the companion’s point of view, all of these changes are seen through the eyes of the Lyons. Daniel’s braindead job at the struggling housing department causes tensions with his husband, Rosie’s love life and family life never find a way to sync up, and Stephen and wife Celeste (T’Nia Miller) are struggling with a child who wishes to become one with the technology she’s grown up with. But this is commonplace remember, and it’s not far off. Virtual-reality filters like the ones found on social media are only moments away, and it’s amazing how on-the-pulse the script has had to remain throughout the writing/production process, even down to including present-day news broadcasts during its initial airing in the UK.
Chernobyl recently highlighted one of our darkest periods on the planet for gripping television, and it’s not outlandish to suggest Years and Years will be noted down as the boldest representation of now. The loss of humanity is an ongoing theme throughout, something that not only the Lyons but the entire world seems to be losing touch with. As new diseases and economic crises arise, humanity shrugs it off and keeps moving…because that’s how it works. That’s how we work. We’ll complain sure, but we daren’t actually do anything about it. The dichotomy the show works with between holding this view and retaining a sense of warmth, even when things look their worst, is astounding to say the least.
Much of the show is dedicated to the struggles of Daniel’s new love Viktor Goraya (Maxim Baldry), an immigrant thrust into despair as the UK’s immigration policies tighten and deport him from the country. Tovey plays Daniel with a frankness that undercuts the implications of his family’s sly remarks, and his chemistry with Baldry, as well as with the rest of the cast, is electric. Their solidarity allows the first half of the series to slowly bring in the overarching stories, and once again feel painfully timely and traumatising. Jessica Hynes’ Edith pulls off gusto by the bucketload as the family’s own personal superhero, willing to break down the government by any means necessary even if she has to by herself. Rory Kinnear’s Stephen is given one of the most complicated and destructive personalities I’ve seen in years, and it’s a testament to his performance that each layer comes through as strong as it does. His daughter Bethany (Lydia West), destined to become one with technology, grows with strength as the years go on with some assistance from some subtle but effective makeup work to tackle the subject of aging.
Directors Simon Cellan Jones and Lisa Mulcahy frame the action with an understated ease. Not that there’s an abundance of action of course, but the combination of tight camerawork and the ever-trustworthy Murray Gold’s haunting choir-filled score and musical beats are enough to give you goosebumps every single time they arise. And why shouldn’t they? Years and Years continuously raises a mirror up to the audience as characters rattle off award-deserving monologues from the top of their heads; they address the problems with affection and excess in the cities we live in whilst still finding a way to complain about how much there is now to complain about. There’s a scene towards the midpoint of the six-episode series where Stephen harkens back to the time where they’d go days without talking about politics and it’s true. Now that we’re constantly bombarded with by-the-minute news, we’re never more than an hour away from the latest development. Yet the Lyons prove better than us it seems through and through.
This isn’t to say Years and Years is not a difficult watch. The parallels are vividly haunting and at points disturbing, to say the least. But there’s no denying it is our future, and by not liking what we see perhaps we’re discovering some kind of deeper meaning to the show. When Muriel laments how the human race has developed, blaming them for all that’s gone wrong, she’s not saying it for her own benefit but for ours, and Anne Reid, alongside the rest of the cast, deserve every ounce of praise they’re getting. Vivian Rook’s rise to power, whilst continuous, makes her a scattershot presence on the show and yet the small snippets we see of her paint such a complete picture. If the average, Twitter-consumed individual was handed this much power it would eat away at them in the exact same way, and her resolutions and policies travel deep down into the darkest pits of humanity with thoughts that are so scary you’ll turn to your family members during the program and exchange the exact same look. Because you know. You know that none of Years and Years is far off.
“Beware the jokers, the tricksters, the clowns. They’ll laugh us all into hell” – Muriel Lyons.
In the end though, after the climax and the frustrations of life in the future, it all comes back to the Lyons. Their fury ignites the fire that forces them to take a stand, and whilst the next impossible evil is already on its way, we’re offered up a brief moment of hope. This is television that should have the nation holding their breath, and whilst the show’s conclusion shouldn’t work due to what’s come before it (with an initial period of potential hard sci-fi mixed together with schmaltzy emotional beats on paper), it becomes an outlining guide on how to survive in such hard times. You get through times like this by staying together and loving one another, and that’s a story that’ll stand the test of time long after the rabid talk of technology and politics returns to a lull.
“It’s our fault. This is the world we built. Congratulations. Cheers all.”