“Do you remember back then? We used to think politics was boring.” Muses Daniel Lyons as he holds his infant nephew in the opening minutes of the latest offering from Queer as Folk and former Doctor Who showrunner Russel T. Davies. Troubled times provide fertile ground for thought-proving media, or provide disturbing context for already existing stories (American lawmakers seem intent of making The Handmaid’s Tale a reality). The popularity of technological dystopias such as Black Mirror and speculative political fiction such as Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here and the perennially relevant 1984 demonstrate our collective anxiety over the direction we are travelling into an increasingly uncertain future.
Years and Years immediately distinguishes itself from the crowded scene by explicitly beginning now. Literally: its first episode aired on 14th May 2019 and the morning’s headlines play over a car radio. From this point onwards we follow the Lyons family from births, deaths and marriages as the world changes around them. Years and Years is rooted in this domesticity, and it is our fondness as an audience for the family combined with the series’ eerie resonance with the current affairs which makes it such compelling television.
This pilot spans five years and although a lot happens, it never gets boring. Russel T. Davies’ writing is propulsive by nature, and the spiralling arpeggios and ominous chanting of Murray Gold’s score makes it feel as if time is slipping away.
Level-headed Steven (Rory Kinnear) and his high-flying wife Celeste (T’Nia Miller) are coming to terms with the fact that their reclusive eldest daughter Bethany is not transgender as they had believed, but is in fact transhuman and wants to “become data” – a prospect they are deeply uncomfortable with. His younger brother Daniel (Russell Tovey) is a housing officer for Manchester City Council, tasked with housing the influx of Ukrainian refugees fleeing to British soil from Russian aggression. Daniel sometimes feels like the author-mouthpiece for the show: he delivers the afore-mentioned monologue-cum-thesis-statement and laments the rise of of populism and ignorance with the morbid statement that “our brains are devolving”. Over the course of the episode, Daniel is shown to be falling out love with his husband (Dino Fetscher), the embodiment of said devolution, and falling for one of the refugees – Viktor Goraya (Maxim Baldry). Viktor was tortured in Ukraine for his dissident political beliefs and homosexuality; this backstory, combined with his ability to laugh and smile despite knowing what humans are capable of immediately makes Daniel, and by extension any of the liberal viewers to whom this programme appeals the most, extremely protective of him. It also makes it inevitable that something absolutely horrible will happen to him at some point.
The Lyons sisters have less to do in this episode. The high-spirited youngest sibling Rosie (Ruth Maddley) works as a catering manager, and her adventures while on an ill-fated debate cause some of the biggest laughs of the episodes. Meanwhile the strident elder sister Edith (Jessica Hynes) is on a mission far across the sea, the objective of which is unknown until the dramatic closing minutes. Finally there is the heart of the family, their grandmother Muriel (Anne Reid), who fondly remembers the times when Woolworths was still on the high street and you could see butterflies in your back garden.
The world of Years and Years feels like it takes place in the present day, even when it jumps forwards to the near future of 2024. There are some technological developments, Snapchat filters have leapt out of the phone and onto holographic screens in front of your face and domestic robots have entered the marketplace but are unlikely to be in wider use for a while. Fashions remain the same, Brexit is still in the headlines, Russia is still causing trouble in Ukraine, China’s policy of building artificial islands in the South-China sea continues. Meanwhile a blonde businessperson who ‘says it like it is’ enters politics with a simple – possibly too simple – and appealing message.
It doesn’t take a genius to see where Russell T. Davies found his inspiration for Vivienne Rook. Indeed, the 2016 election of Donald Trump was what inspired Davies to pitch Years and Years to the BBC. Dame Emma Thompson is on sparkling form as the embodiment of everything she despises; a composite of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Katie Hopkins who complains that she is being censored by the mainstream media while being featured on the front-page of The Sun, appearing on Have I Got News for You where her personality can be played off as a joke. It’s chilling to watch because it’s so familiar. While liberals like Daniel (who isn’t shown to read The Guardian, but you know he does) are appalled by her disregard for Palestinian families in Gaza but don’t consider her a threat to take seriously, her message chimes with other sympathetic characters such as Rosie. Characters are not shown to be bad people because they find themselves drawn to Viv Rook. Even though it is clear who she is going to become, Thompson makes Rook exude a warmth which makes her seem ordinary, even though she is an extremely rich woman who downplays her wealth to appear to be more of a ‘man of the people’. Russel T. Davies has created a compelling populist, without casting judgement on those who are drawn in by their charms. This attitude is perhaps best summed up by the broadcaster James O’Brien at a Peoples’ Vote March: ‘Contempt for the conmen. Compassion for the conned.’
Years and Years manages the rare feat of being a series pilot which proves itself to be worth your time from the very beginning. By the end of the episode the viewer has been introduced to an entire extended family and five years of turbulent society and politics which all passes in the blink of an eye after a heart-stopping and unforgettable final ten minutes, leaving them breathless.
This is zeitgeist television at its finest.