Years and Years: A Review
by Blanka Šustrová
Years and Years is a six-episode British TV series created and written by Russel T. Davies, who is known for his work on over thirty episodes of Doctor Who. It was created in a joint production of BBC and HBO and premiered on BBC One in May 2019 and on HBO in June 2019.
Years and Years could be described as a family drama, dystopian fiction and even science fiction. It focuses on a large family from Manchester living through a fifteen-year long turbulent period starting in 2019, dealing with the advantages and disadvantages of technological progress, political changes, family and relationship issues and the generation gap.
The Lyons family is quite a varied group of characters. Grandmother Muriel (Anne Reid) represents the matriarch, in some ways conservative and having a hard time adapting to quick changes but on the other hand the most experienced one. Muriel’s oldest grandchild, Edith (Jessica Hynes) is an ecological, humanitarian and political activist that comes home after a long time abroad, after witnessing the re-elected president Donald Trump sending a nuclear missile to a fictional artificially created Chinese island Hong Sha Dao from the coast of Vietnam in 2024. Edith’s brother Stephen (Rory Kinnear) is a financial advisor who will later famously become “the man who lost a million pounds”, after the economy crashes. He has to work several jobs he is highly overqualified for after this, including clinical trials of human drug testing. He lives in London with his wife Celeste (T’Nia Miller), an accountant, whose job qualification becomes dispensable after accountants are replaced by computer systems. They have two daughters – Bethany (Lydia West), who dreams of having her consciousness moved to an internet cloud and identifies herself as “transhuman” and Ruby (Jade Alleyne), whose secondary school curriculum involves lessons on pornography. Stephen and Edith’s third sibling, Daniel (Russel Tovey), works as a housing officer for refugees and while married to his husband Ralph (Dino Fetscher), starts an affair with a Ukrainian refugee Victor (Maxim Baldry), which ends tragically. The youngest of the four is Rosie (Ruth Madeley), a single mum with two boys (from two fathers) who suffers from spina bifida.
The Lyons family might seem like a composition of certain types, rather than characters, to please every possible viewer – Stephen is a white middle class man, whose wife is of Afro-Caribbean descent and one of their daughters identifies as “transhuman”. Edith is an eco-social anarchist. Daniel is gay and Rosie is a wheelchair-bound single mother. On the other hand, this opinion also implies the impossibility of such families to exist, which is hardly the case.
Each member of the Lyons family is a well-rounded character, not just a vessel for carrying out a certain type and they have a dynamic that works – that’s why it is possible to identify with them, empathize with them, connect with them and root for them over the six hour-long episodes.
Rory Kinnear’s character, Stephen, might be the most well-rounded of all of them, as he progresses with every episode from a financially secure privileged man with a loving family through a period of instability, humiliation and insecurity, to starting an extramarital affair and suffering a serious loss that he is not able to process, which results in him ending up as an indisputably morally flawed person. Yet not all of the characters got such complex treatment by the writer. The character of Daniel Lyons, however likeable and well portrayed by Russel Tovey, might seem to succumb to a stereotypically written gay character – overly driven by emotions and with a tragic ending.
Years and Years could be thematically compared to Netflix’s Black Mirror (2011 –) created by Charlie Brooker. Yet the focus on a dystopian future and the danger of new technologies is where the similarity ends. The standalone episodes of Black Mirror show a different type of dystopia which works with a hyperbole of social, technological or moral issues of today’s world and due to that it has considerable shock value. However, as a viewer, you might think ‘that was absolutely horrible, but I am sure humanity would never go so far’. That is a connecting element of Black Mirror episodes and also what adds to the dystopia, if we perceive a dystopia as a warning of a distant future. The format of the show consisting of episodes that are not linked by characters or time period does not offer as strong a potential for deeper connection of the viewer with the characters as in Years and Years. After watching some of the Black Mirror episodes you can go to sleep without fear, knowing that this kind of “sci-fi” would never happen – or at least probably not in your lifetime.
The dystopia of Years and Years is different, and I would even argue scarier than in Black Mirror, as we witness a gradual progress towards it, and as viewers connect or even identify with a family going through turbulent times. The most frightening part is watching events that we are already witnessing in real life being depicted on the screen and being labelled as dystopian. From populist politicians lying to get to the top and offering “quick fixes” and “finally letting people say what they’ve thought for years” to fast spreading fake news and even deep fakes, owning media for their own propaganda and devaluing the work of independent journalists. All these fears are embodied in the character of Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), a populist politician and media-owner, who slowly convinces the nation about her ability to make quick fixes for the desperate times possible and eventually becomes the PM. Later she plans to deal with the refugee crisis and the housing crisis the same way the British dealt with the Boers.
The strength of Years and Years lies in its flawed and therefore very human characters and their will to live and adapt to the circumstances as well as the notion that difficult times do not just come out of nowhere. It carries the message that we are responsible for the dystopia we live in and what now seems to us years and years away might be closer than we think.