'Years And Years' Review: This Imagined Future Says Plenty About The Present The six-part BBC series airing on HBO follows one British family over the course of 15 years of upheaval, beginning in 2019. The unsettling show imagines the dismal future that liberals fear.


TV Reviews

Imagining A Dismal Future, 'Years And Years' Says Plenty About The Present

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This is FRESH AIR. The new British series "Years And Years" is a politically dystopian series that chronicles the life of an English family and takes us 15 years into the future. Premiering tonight on HBO, the six-part drama has a cast that includes Emma Thompson. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, has seen the first four episodes and says it's scarier than a horror movie.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Things are looking bright for pessimists these days. The world is caught up with their sense of gloom. Well over half of those living in the developed world think their countries are headed in the wrong direction, away from the prosperity and stability that people over age 40 once took for granted. Be it climate change, financial collapse, terrorism, political gridlock or the ceaseless psychic tasering of social media, ordinary people often feel caught in a reality that's spinning out of control.

Such a feeling underlies the rip-roaring BBC show "Years And Years," airing on HBO. With hints of everything from "Black Mirror" to "The Handmaid's Tale" to "The Apprentice," this six-part family saga gazes through a crystal ball to tell a darkly unsettling tale about how history affects individual lives. The action begins right now in 2019 and carries us 15 years into the future. The story centers on the Manchester-based Lyons family, who may be a bit too neat in their diversity. The eldest brother, Stephen, played by Rory Kinnear, is a prosperous financial planner married to Celeste - that's T'Nia Miller, a successful black accountant with whom he has two daughters. He has a gay younger brother, Daniel, played by Russell Tovey, who works for the Manchester city government - and two younger sisters.

There's earnest Edith, played by Jessica Hynes, who's a globetrotting social activist, and the rousing Rosie - that's Ruth Madeley, a blue-collar single mom with spina bifida. On holidays, they visit the home of their redoubtable grandmother, played by Anne Reid, who lives in - metaphor, anyone? - a big, old house in serious need of repair.

As the show begins, they're simply going about their lives. But history soon starts roaring around them like a hurricane. Donald Trump is reelected and begins a nuclear stare-down with China. Vladimir Putin takes over Ukraine, and refugees pour into Britain. Banks begin to wobble. Political parties dither. And Britain watches the rise of Vivienne Rook, played by a terrific Emma Thompson, a plain-speaking businesswoman turned populist politician who owns her own TV network. Some of the Lyons find Rook a breath of fresh air. The others think she's Satan. Early on, Daniel takes Rosie's newborn baby in his arms and begins talking about the world he's being born into.


ANNE REID: (As Muriel) Oh, he's looking a bit broody there.

RUSSELL TOVEY: (As Daniel) No chance. No way.

RORY KINNEAR: (As Stephen) You'd be great, you and Ralph.

TOVEY: (As Daniel) Don't know if I could have a kid in a world like this.

RUTH MADELEY: (As Rosie) Oh, that's happy, thanks.

TOVEY: (As Daniel) Really, though. It is like that Rook woman said - things were OK a few years ago, before 2008. Do you remember back then? We used to think politics was boring.

KINNEAR: (As Stephen) Those were the days.

TOVEY: (As Daniel) And now I worry about everything. I don't know what to worry about first. Never mind the government. It's the sodding banks. They terrify me. And it's not even them, it's the companies, the brands, the corporations that treat us like algorithms while they go around poisoning the air and the temperature and the rain. And don't even start with me on ISIS. And now we've got America. Never thought I'd be scared of America in a million years. But we've got fake news and false facts. I don't even know what's true anymore. What sort of world are we in? Because if it's this bad now, what's it going to be like for you - 30 years' time, 10 years or five years?

POWERS: "Years And Years" is the brainchild of Russell T. Davies, who's well known in Britain for his smart resurrection of "Dr. Who" in 2005 and his landmark gay series "Queer As Folk." Here, Davies is less interested in inventing an imaginary dystopia than in taking the world we now inhabit - with Brexit, refugees, Putin, Syria and so forth - and spinning a vision of how these things will play out in daily life.

As huge and terrifying things happen, fortunes crumble and rise. Love affairs flower for good and ill. Young people find new ways of being trans - I'll say no more - while some of their elders meet death. The whooshing cultural changes and the family's plucky adjustments to them make "Years And Years" addictive, doubly so as the show boasts one of those crack British casts so well-trained in realism. The actors keep the dizziest events anchored in common experience. And Davies is brilliant at finding real emotion in fanciful circumstances.

Of course, depictions of the future often prove to be profoundly wrong, as those still waiting for their flying cars can attest. Indeed, speculative fiction usually tells us more about the present than the future. That's true here. Despite some witty doodles around the margins, Davies' dire sense of the next few years isn't exactly revelatory. He basically extrapolates from today's big issues - be it refugees, fervent nationalism, fake news or the collapse of traditional political parties. At times, Davies falls into what George Orwell called the trap of believing that what's happening now will keep happening forever.

Steeped in liberal paranoia, "Years And Years" skillfully captures how the world now feels to folks like Davies, who voted against Brexit, feared Donald Trump and dread that the tolerant, democratic, globalized social order of the late 20th century is collapsing around them. But whether or not you share Davies' politics, you will almost certainly find the show chilling and identify with the Lyons family's struggles to understand and survive forces they can't begin to control.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new HBO series "Years And Years," which begins tonight on HBO. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be comic and actor Ramy Youssef. He stars in a semi-autobiographical series called "Ramy," about being the son of Egyptian immigrants and surprising friends by actually being an observant Muslim - but not observant about everything. His new stand-up comedy special premieres on HBO Saturday night. The special and the series are about trying to figure out who he is as a Muslim and a man. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


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