This new BBC/HBO limited series is a terrifying, chill-inducing look at our imminent future—but it’s also witty and full of warmth.
The world is already a pretty terrifying place, and it doesn’t look like it’s about to be magically fixed any time soon. (You know what they say, things get worse before they get better.) So if you were to ask people what their future worst-case scenario looks like, you might get a range of answers: Trump gets re-elected, governments around the world shift further right, climate change reaches irrevocable heights (or lows), technology creeps insidiously deeper into our lives, we end up in nuclear war.
Years And Years, a new HBO/BBC limited series, takes those plausible threads and weaves them with creativity and foresight into a deeply unsettling, harrowing tale. The show opens with a day in the life of the Lyons family in Manchester, England, in May 2019 and fast-forwards five, 10, 15 years to paint a bleak but realistic picture of where today’s troubling geopolitical, technological, xenophobic and populist trends will take us—the North Pole has entirely melted, there are no more butterflies, Mike Pence is President, and chocolate has become a rare commodity (true hell).
It’s tempting to call the show dystopian but that would be irresponsible, considering we’re already well on our way—hurtling, in fact—towards the future the show predicts. On this life-size chess game, the pieces are already in place—right-wing extremism, unchecked authoritarianism, the weaponization of technology—and the show’s creator Russell T. Davies (whose other credits include the resurrection of Doctor Who and A Very English Scandal) just takes them several moves ahead. Unlike shows like Black Mirror, in which the premise can sometimes be absurd enough to still feel eons away, what makes Years And Years panic-inducing is both its plausibility and its relatability. Emma Thompson plays a version of the divisive, anti-establishment leaders currying favour around the world at the moment, and a slew of other excellent British actors including Russell Tovey and Rory Kinnear play the various members of the extended Lyons family, each with their own priorities, concerns, and political affiliations in a rapidly shifting landscape. With the Lyonses at the heart of the show, we see the effects of this dismal future on real-life, decent people instead of just as an abstract possibility floating hazily in the vague distance. In short, shit gets real. The terror during the last ten minutes of the first episode is so acute, I had goosebumps and a racing heart through the entirety of it. I’m not the only one.
“Just had an internal nervous breakdown after watching the first episode of YEARS AND YEARS,” Emily Nussbaum, Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic for The New Yorker,tweeted last week.
Given the grim, unrelenting nature of our current news cycle, the kinds of shows viewers seem to be gravitating towards these days are either an escape from the daily horrors of the day (read: Schitt’s Creek) or ones in which its characters are fighting valiantly to give us a better future (read: The Good Fight). So I’m sure there are people out there going, “Real life is bad enough, do we really need more?” And the answer is: yes. Years And Years is vital viewing. It cuts the bullshit, whipping the safety net out from under us and forcing us to confront the reality that lies ahead. Its prescience is unsettling, to be sure, but there’s a cautionary element built in it too, if we just choose to listen.
“The world keeps getting hotter and faster and madder,” says one of the Lyons sisters in the opening episode of this six-part miniseries. “And we don’t pause, we don’t think, we don’t learn, we just keep racing to the next disaster.”
But despite the dark premise, the show doesn’t feel bleak and gloomy. As with real life, in the midst of all the bad news there are glimmers of hope, of humour, of love. The show may be fast-paced and at times even frenetic but when it comes to the human relationships, whether between siblings or between lovers, it slows down, giving the characters time to breathe, to connect, to be tender. The Lyons family provides us with plenty of entertainment—disastrous first dates, awkward family dinners, witty banter, and a laugh-out-loud drunken dance circle around a bonfire. There’s also robot sex, freaky human-tech boundary blurring, some Very Good Looking people and, did I mention Emma Thompson as a ruthless wannabe autocrat? What makes the show especially masterful, though, is the way in which Davies explores humanity’s capacity for complacency—how quickly we can get used to the splintering and fracturing of foundations we once relied on. Amidst all the chaos we somehow get up, we go to work, we drink wine with friends, we cook, we fight, we procreate. But there are some things we should never get used to. Like a world without chocolate.
A new episode of the show drops weekly on Crave/HBO.