In Years and Years, catastrophe after catastrophe happens to England and to the world, but life always goes on. Babies are born, couples get together and separate, and people lose their jobs and get other jobs. It’s a blessing, this sense of inevitable continuity. But it’s also a problem, because the feeling that life continues regardless disguises the fact that the Overton window keeps shifting on what “normal” means, and when we understandably get lost in everyday drama, we fail to grasp that all of this could literally just end. As in, That’s all, folks.
Created and written by Russell T. Davies, one of the recent reinventors of Doctor Who, and co-starring Emma Thompson as a populist who becomes an authoritarian demagogue in the mold of Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, this HBO–BBC co-production could be described as speculative fiction. But by focusing on one family, the Manchester-based Lyons, and tying their individual fortunes to the world’s, this miniseries plainly aims to evade genre pigeonholes and become a mainstream phenomenon — and though it gets a bit ludicrous as it shoehorns nearly every family member into the heart of current events (in the manner of an old-fashioned epic historical soap like The Winds of War or North and South), it remains gripping. And when it’s firing on all cylinders, it plays like a fusion of This Is Us and Children of Men.
Russell Tovey’s Daniel Lyons is a housing officer who cheats on his husband with a Ukrainian refugee named Viktor (Maxim Baldry), only to see him vanish into the labyrinth of immigration and deportation, an even scarier place to be with the country becoming more xenophobic. His brother Stephen (Rory Kinnear) is a banker who has more money than anyone else in the family, though it’s immediately apparent that this might not be a permanent state of affairs. (An early reference to the 2008 crash positively screams foreshadowing.) He and his wife, Celeste (T’Nia Miller), whose own family is from the Caribbean, are struggling to understand their teenage daughter, Bethany (Lydia West), who has announced herself to be transhuman, having cell-phone technology implanted in her hand and aspiring to have her consciousness uploaded into the cloud. (“Where I’m going, there’s no life or death, only data,” she says. “I will be data.”) The two Lyons sisters, the political activist Edith (Jessica Hynes) and the chef-manager and single mother Rosie (Ruth Madeley), become enamored with Thompson’s character, Vivienne Rook, an avatar of the fascistic Four Star Party who ascends to high office by promising straight talk and a return to old-fashioned values — this despite the fact that Edith personally witnessed a nuclear attack launched against China by Donald Trump, and that Rosie, who uses a wheelchair owing to spina bifida, would be marked as an undesirable should the country take a turn toward the Germanic.
And that’s clearly where things are headed. Between the seeming inevitability of environmental collapse, tech-enabled authoritarianism, economic deprivation, and various kinds of scapegoating meant to divert attention from leadership failures, this is a bitter pill of a miniseries. Despite glimmerings of rebellion and redemption as it heads into its final act, Years and Years mostly endorses Stephen’s diagnosis of Western society trending downward: He says that, for all its (mostly implied) problems and inequities, there was a collective sense that humanity was building toward something, until recently. “Pop,” he says. “Whatever we had, we punctured it, and now it’s all collapsing.”
The tale begins in 2019, then quickly jumps ahead to 2020 and beyond, starting each new episode with a rapidly edited montage interweaving reports of nation-shaking political events and financial and ecological disasters with ordinary family rituals, celebrations, and tragedies. At one point, in the space of a few minutes, the series cuts between news reports of birds and insects dying off with a shot of a grandmother killing a single bug on her kitchen counter with a rolled-up magazine, driving home the notion that our own personal experience blinds us to wider realities — and perhaps subtly indicating that each individual plays a role in extinction. Then the montage goes immediately to shots of a teenager’s birthday party, then to her mother being laid off as a result of global events and having to sell the family house in order to “downsize.”
The juxtaposition of the epic and mundane is the point. This is a broad-strokes diagnosis of a species in existential crisis. It’s meant as a warning about what’s happening in the present moment. And it is seemingly unconcerned about timelessness, because at the rate we’re going, we won’t be able to look back on anything, since we’ll be too busy scrounging for survival in the wasteland. That every anguished or panicked moment seems to vanish mere instants after registering on your brainpan is part of the design. It’s the miniseries as Snapchat message. The tl;dr version is that the world is stuffed, as the Brits would put it, if we don’t face facts and start cleaning up the mess we’ve made. The alternative is conflating the inevitability of personal extinction with the cratering of life itself, something the characters themselves do often, malaise being the default emotional state in this world. Rosie’s neighbor asks Edith, “Aren’t you supposed to be dying?” “Well, I mean,” Edith replies, “aren’t we all, in the end?”