For months now, I’ve been recommending “Years and Years” to people looking for a good TV story. But as soon as I utter the word “dystopia,” which is an integral part of the six-part HBO miniseries as it stretches 15 years from now into the future, in a “Black Mirror” kind of way, I generally see a blink, a slight recoil around the cheeks, often accompanied by a comment about how exhausting those kinds of shows can be.
I can’t argue with them. Sometimes, the dystopian series — the brutal “The Handmaid’s Tale” is among them, as well as the techno-nightmare shows “Westworld” and “Humans” — reflect and yet twist up our present realities in ways that feel too close to home. Ironically, the more extreme post-apocalyptic likes of “The Walking Dead,” “See,” “The 100,” or “Altered Carbon,” are easier to take; they’re set in highly theoretical futures that we can emotionally distance ourselves from, and they tend to include far-fetched genre trappings, notably zombies. Also, with an odd kind of optimism, they imply that the human race has indeed gone on to survive, if not in the best circumstances. Yay, we were not entirely eradicated by nuclear war or environmental disaster.
But the more difficult dystopias such as “Years and Years” give us visions of worlds that look enough like our own to be genuinely troubling. They take currently pressing issues such as immigration, climate change, the rise of authoritarianism, and morally unchecked technological advancement and move them only a step or two forward in an unsettling direction. They’re futuristic-ish, notions of the day after tomorrow, and they’re alarmingly plausible. The episode “Nosedive” on “Black Mirror” — the ne plus ultra of near-future realism, the “Twilight Zone” of this moment even more than Jordan Peele’s “Twilight Zone” remake on CBS All Access — is a great example. It portrays how our social media ratings of one another could directly affect our socioeconomic opportunities. Meanwhile, “The Handmaid’s Tale” takes the political threats facing women’s rights, along with the increasing blur between church and state, and turns them into a country that takes violent control of women’s bodies virtually overnight. It’s the darkest of warnings.
And yet, and yet, here they are on our TVs, painful to watch, hard to look away from. Even the soapy “The Affair” traveled into dystopian territory for its final season last year, as it jumped ahead a few decades (with Anna Paquin playing the daughter of two lead characters) to reveal a severely environmentally comprised world where people struggle with purposelessness and despair.
The dystopias represent nearly the opposite kind of viewing experience from another huge TV trend of recent years: The reboot. Watching old shows that have been revived or rejiggered into something new is a form of comfort TV. Reboots offer predictable, often nostalgic stories that, generally speaking, don’t challenge us or speak to our deepest fears.
But dystopian TV and comfort TV are two sides of the same coin; they represent two ways to cope with our present anxieties in a world changing blindingly — virally — fast. Dystopian TV has us looking directly at today’s sources of dread — the rise of white nationalism, the advent of cruel immigrant camps, the ever-growing ignorance regarding global warming — and pondering them and their possible imminent fallout. Comfort TV has us looking away, twisting our necks backward, just as we do to watch reruns of “Friends” and “The Office” by the millions.
What many dystopian series do is imagine the future as something retrogressive. On “The Handmaid’s Tale,” that slipping backward is obvious. But behind even the most sleekly designed shows, where technology is portrayed as smooth and intuitive as possible, the primitive seems to resurface; the advancements are tethered to serious temperamental reversion. The behavior of the humans on “Westworld,” “Years and Years,” “Black Mirror,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” (with its hanging wall at Fenway Park) harkens back in some ways to early civilization and its brutal interactions.
The shows imply that we’ve moved ahead as far as we can go, that we’ve peaked and are now in decline.
So yes, it is hard to watch “Years and Years” and its ilk. While they may throw us a bone of hope here and there — something “The Handmaid’s Tale” appears to be straining to do with its revolution plot — they are downers for sure. But I’m not going to turn away, especially when they’re as thoughtfully done as “Years and Years.” Why? Ultimately, I do take away a sense of optimism from them — from the fact that the stories are being told, and not completely ignored and left unwatched.