TV Review: The Cautionary Tale of ‘Years and Years’

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“Years and Years” may be a television show that plays with time, but there’s no question that it was built with a 2019 audience and all of their anxieties in mind. Thought provoking and incredibly timely, it’s an emotional powerhouse that grabs audiences by the throat and refuses to let go. As a series, “Years and Years” holds up against the best that HBO has to offer.

“Years and Years” begins in 2019 and focuses on the lives of the Lyons family, four 30-something siblings from Manchester. Stephen (Rory Kinnear) is a successful financial advisor living in London with his wife Celeste (T’Nia Miller) and their two daughters. Daniel (Russell Tovey) is his charming younger brother who works to maintain housing for asylum-seekers currently pouring into Britain, which is where he meets his love interest, a Ukrainian refugee named Viktor (Maxim Baldry) who, as a gay man, was labeled a political dissident and forced to flee the country. Rosie (Ruth Madeley), the youngest, is a single mother with Spina Bifida, whose birth of her second child is what opens the story. And Edith (Jessica Hynes), the estranged political activist who flies around righting the world’s wrongs, is notable in the early moments of the show largely for her prolonged absence from the lives of her siblings. They’re all connected by their gran, Muriel (Anne Reid), who after their mother’s death has assumed the role of family matriarch. Up until this point, they’ve all led reasonably happy, peaceful lives. They don’t know how good they had it until it all comes crashing down.

As 2019 unfolds, there’s a sense that everything is on the cusp of change. Even in the show’s first moments, it cultivates an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty and helplessness. When you have to worry about everything, how can you prioritize and begin to decide where to focus your efforts? The characters give voice to their anxiety, wondering what’s going to happen next. And then we find out. Unlike the Lyons family, who have to live each day warily awaiting what comes next, we’re given a window into their future to see where this all leads; what insidiousness is able to take root from seemingly innocuous beginnings.

Each episode looks a little further into their timeline, through upheaval and financial crises to the brink of social collapse. As dire and apocalyptic as everything feels, incredibly, people carry on. This fundamental truth (and ultimate indictment) of human nature is at the heart of the show. Humanity has an almost endless capacity to adapt to new surroundings, to endure injustice upon injustice until “normal” has been warped beyond recognition. This malleability has ensured our survival, but it’s also our greatest curse. What horrifying circumstances will we adjust to, and what crimes will we allow to be carried out against others before we’re finally moved to action?

While this is all undoubtedly interesting as an ethical thought experiment, “Years and Years” wouldn’t be half as engaging without the deep emotional connection we have with the Lyons family. Russell T. Davies proves himself once again to be a masterful architect of human drama, and within the first ten minutes of the opening episode, we already find ourselves thoroughly invested in their lives. They are the lens through which we explore this bleak new world, but they’re also fascinating characters in their own right. It’s immensely rewarding to see what strange and often heartbreaking directions the years will take them.

To that end, Davies assembles an incredibly impressive ensemble cast (many of whom he had worked with previously during his tenure as showrunner for “Doctor Who”). They are among the most talented actors of their generation, and the life that they bring to the show is a salve for the sometimes overwhelming darkness of the narrative. What they’re all asked to do in depicting the lives of these characters over the course of fifteen years as they’re dragged through hell is an incredible challenge, and they acquit themselves admirably. The two standouts are Russell Tovey, who brings not only charisma to the role of Daniel but tremendous heart in his quest to keep his refugee lover safe from a harsh and reactionary world, and Anne Reid who as their gran Muriel serves as the family’s conscience as the series goes on. But really, “Years and Years” has a wealth of talent across the board in the acting department.

HBO‘s latest offering taps into an existential dread, the sense of anxiety that comes from being surrounded and bombarded by news bulletins that are all terrible all the time, that feels upsettingly familiar to many viewers. It’s a story about the past, present, and future all at once — we see themes from the darkest moments of the twentieth century repeat themselves, with horrifying implications for the world to come. Although “Years and Years” may be set a few years down the line, make no mistake: its bleak vision of the future is about us at this very moment. We are allowed a glimpse of the darkest timeline, in the hope that we may avert it.

As a series, “Years and Years” is suitably epic in its depiction of a near future gone terribly wrong. It challenges audiences to question their own actions and is emotionally rich enough that it should linger in the minds of viewers long after they’ve finished watching the show. It remains to be seen whether there will be another season of “Years and Years”, but as it stands currently it’s a near-perfect run of six episodes packed full of existential horror and the ever-present hope for redemption.

“Years and Years” premieres on HBO on Monday, June 24th at 9:00 p.m. ET. The first four episodes were reviewed.

GRADE: (★½)

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