Set in Britain, Years and Years kicks off on one night in 2019 and follows the Lyons, a nice, middle-class family from Manchester, until 2034. As each episode jumps ahead a few more years, we watch their lives unfold over the tumultuous, and at times terrifying next 15 years while simultaneously becoming more and more anxious and uneasy about our own futures.
In the beginning, the Lyons let the ever-increasing horror of world events, omnipresent via the 24-hour news cycle, wash over them as they continue to move through their pleasant lives and deal with the usual family issues. That is until world problems that have been brewing for years but usually only happen to others, gradually seep in from the fringes of society and land directly on their doorstep, making their comfortable middle-class world most uncomfortable.
The re-election of Trump, accelerating chaos around climate change, the escalating refugee crisis, the technological revolution, including the rise of transhumanism, and extremist politics combine to relentlessly ratchet up the tension until the safety of the Lyons’ world snaps, changing it forever.
In this not too futuristic world, things have been allowed to spiral out of control in plain sight. Progressive change is repealed, people become more oppressed, as the ever-advancing fear, control and ‘fake news’ are broadcast on screens throughout the world – without too much effort from anyone to challenge it along the way.
“Democracy was a very nice idea for a while, but now it’s worn out.”
Contributing to the chaos is Vivienne Rook, a right-wing, clueless, wealthy celebrity businesswoman with a lust for power who turns her hand to populist politics (sound familiar?), and is played to chilling perfection by Emma Thompson.
“What’s clever about Vivienne … is that she presents as a down to earth, ordinary, working woman who just wants the best for everybody and feels passionately about ordinary people and ordinary issues. Of course, she’s not that at all, she’s something a great deal more sinister and is someone who wants power”, says Thompson.
Although middle-class, the Lyons family is gloriously diverse in many other ways. Played by a superb ensemble cast including T’Nia Miller (Dr Who), Russell Tovey (Being Human, Pride), Ruth Madeley (Don’t Take My Baby) and Anne Reid (Last Tango in Halifax), each character represents an issue, a marginalised group that stands to be affected by the regressive, new-order fascism that has taken hold of the world. Diverse gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity and physical abilities are front and centre but presented as perfectly matter-of-fact within the family.
Showrunner Russell T. Davies (Queer As Folk, Doctor Who) delivers a fascinating and slick script, blending sci-fi and drama infused with comedy that makes the terrifying bits all the more terrifying. He manages to deliver a cautionary Orwellian tale, dense with predictions about a horrifying, out of control world gone completely mad in the guise of an entertaining family drama that doesn’t feel too preachy.
Davies says, “It’s a look at the future, but you feel it. It could be sterile or it could be angry or it could be preachy or it could be cold, but this is how we all experience it. We’re all experiencing Trump. This is how we’re all experiencing Brexit, here. It’s via your family and your friends and the chats you have. This is the experience of history.”
Composer Murray Gold, a long-time collaborator with Davies, and who teamed up with him for the 2005 revival of Dr Who, has produced an extraordinary and sensorially arousing soundtrack that amplifies the visual chaos. The repetitious use of the main theme song, Into the Future, as society accelerates towards possible disintegration, is brilliantly unnerving, and underlines the unique identity of this series. Clever editing techniques enhance the dread with rapid on-screen sensory stimulation mimicking the noisy, rapid pace of everyday existence within the growing world turmoil.
You won’t know what to worry about first, but it’s the familiar feel of the chaos and turmoil in Years and Years that is most disturbing. Overall the series asks the question – do we just continue to roll with all of this, be complicit, or do we resist? Years and Years may well be an ominous and timely call to action for all of us.
Years and Years is streaming at SBS On Demand now.
In our first The Playlist for the year, we take a look at 'Minari' - the story of a Korean migrant family attempting to start afresh in rural Arkansas - which is attracting plenty of awards season buzz - and Fiona speaks with the film’s writer/director Lee Isaac Chung. We also think back on the year that was, and what’s exciting us for the year ahead.