Near future drama Years and Years may well be Russell T Davies’ masterpiece. A heartfelt, emotionally intelligent, and just a little bit terrifying exploration of the world we live in. And where it may take us next.
Simply put, Years and Years, the latest from former Doctor Who supremo Russell T Davies, is a work of genius. If you haven’t seen the first episode yet, drop whatever you’re doing (well, if it’s a baby or small child, or vial of a world-ending virus, maybe put it down carefully instead) and run to watch it now.
The whole series covers a span of fifteen years, and this first episode is set between 2019 and 2024. Or, to put it another way, it kicks off on the day of transmission – brilliantly communicated by dropping the today’s real news stories, Doris Day’s death included, into the soundtrack of the characters’ morning commute. And it runs until the final day of President Donald Trump’s second term. And the ride in between is about as relaxing and optimistic as that second sentence makes it sound.
In fact, as soon as the episode ended, some took to social media to complain. Apparently sincere in their belief that the episode was ‘irresponsibly’ damaging to people’s stress levels. And it’s telling, perhaps, that it’s not because Years and Years features blood, or gore, or deaths, or torture. It doesn’t. The terror of the episode flows not from extremes, but from how distinctly plausible everything is.
Years and Years gives a ground-level view of a changing world, as seen by the sprawling, multi-generational Lyons family
We experience this brave new world through the lives of the Lyons family. In typical Davies style, they’re a sprawling, dysfunctional mess of a clan that’s, all the same, defined by the deep unspoken love between them. Stephen (Rory Kinnear) and his wife Celeste (Hell Bent’s T’Nia Miller) struggle to connect with their daughter Bethany (Lydia West). Stephen’s younger brother Daniel (Voyage of the Damned’s Russell Tovey), has married to his new husband one senses just because it was time to settle down, despite the two being the most utterly incompatible pairing.
Little seen eldest sibling Edith (Human Nature’s Jessica Hynes) has lived her life like a crusading Jo Jones (nee Grant) – racing around the world, challenging one injustice after another. Meanwhile, youngest sister Rosie (Ruth Madeley) floats along through a series of disastrous relationships, buoyed up by her charismatic personality. Finally, with the Lyons’ parents dead, the top of this particular feed chain sits with Muriel (Smith and Jones’ Anne Reid). Grandmother and great-grandmother, she speaks her mind with a great love of ‘plain old common sense’ but isn’t the dragon a less nuanced writer might have made her.
That the Lyons are a very average family, with very common problems – glimpsing the seismic changes in the world from the margins – is central to what makes Years and Years so brilliant. And it’s what lends the script that terrifying plausibility that left some viewers rattled. Daniel works on the building site of a refugee township, thrown up like a Brazilian ghetto. He comes home to a husband who’s been convinced by Facebook that the existence of germs has been faked by Big Pharma and that the Earth may be flat. And who speaks in tangled frustrating rhetoric, “I don’t claim to be absolutely right, so you can’t tell me I’m absolutely wrong!”
Emma Thompson’s Vivienne Rook moves through the background of events like a shark. Ever closer and ever more dangerous.
Rosie goes on a date with a single father from her son’s school that’s going very, very well indeed until she encounters the kind of 21st-century sex problem that never troubled Agony Aunt letter pages in the old days. And Stephen and Celeste tut about limiting their children’s screen time, and groan about getting calendar invite emailed to them. “We’re sitting right here in front of you!” they despair. But with the inevitable evolution that holograms can now apply Snapchat style filters to people’s faces in real life.
And this sense of reality is continued by how, for the moment at least, the Lyons experience the more significant events in this near-future world the same way most of us will – sitting in front of our televisions. For, even by the end of this first hour, Emma Thompson’s Vivienne Rook has yet to appear in person. She’s a face on a screen. A picture in a newspaper.
She’s the panellist on Question Time who takes control of a news cycle by saying she “doesn’t give a ****” about the people of Gaza while people in her neighbourhood are parking their cars on the footpath. (“She can’t say that!” exclaims Daniel!) She’s the politician brought onto Have I Got News for You to be gently mocked for her extreme views. (“I like her. She’s funny,” says Rosie.) And she’s the talking head invited on seemingly endless media appearances because she can be relied upon to be exciting watching.
She’s the woman slowly building support for her Four Star Party as the years roll by. The woman on the “VOTE VIV” billboard looking down as a refugee camp burns. She’s the phantom menace slowly weaving a spell over the country. The shark in the water as the Jaws theme gets gradually more urgent.
Davies’ very human script draws a very plausible path to take otherwise good people towards dangerous views
There are other ways in which Years and Years is actually almost reassuring, though. In large part, it’s setting itself up as a tale of how there will always be new battles to fight. But that the old ones may yet be won. It would have been easy, and a bit predictable, to have Muriel, the matriarch of this family of grandsons and their husbands, and mixed-race great-grandchildren, to be disapproving, or only grudgingly accepting of them. But there’s never a doubt that for her, and everyone else in this family we encounter, these are non-issues, despite her clashes with Celeste.
Rosie is in a wheelchair, but that does nothing to dampen her love life. In fact, it goes almost totally unmentioned and unremarked upon. And when a misunderstanding leads them to think Bethany is transgender, her parents Stephen and Celeste easily accept this idea. When Bethany’s real situation is revealed, her parents explode in outrage and horror at their daughter’s true beliefs challenging their tolerance in new ways. While conspiracy theories are depicted as flowing less from stupidity, but from a desperate need to free their personal reality from the ‘tyranny’ of objective fact – to wrestle some measure of control in a world where they feel afraid and out of control.
The final scenes of this first episode left many jaws dropped, and many hands reaching for a stiff drink. Indeed, it’s remarkable that the greatest cliffhanger of Davies’ career so far comes after leaving Doctor Who. And it’s one that suggests, that no matter what the resolution next Tuesday life for the Lyons family and the world will only get darker in 2024.
Years and Years continues with Episode Two on BBC One at 9pm on Tuesday, the 21st of May.