HBO drama ‘Years and Years’ puts a human face on a disturbing future
In April 2016, the Globe opinion section published a front page that forecast what the news of April 2017 might look like if Donald Trump won the election. It was an unpleasant — and, it turns out, painfully prescient — projection of what America might become under Trump.
In some ways, the excellent new HBO miniseries “Years and Years” is the scripted-drama version of that Globe page. It’s a projection of the next 15 years — in politics, yes, but also in how those politics affect the daily lives of a close-knit family — and it’s based on what’s happening right now. We follow the Lyons clan of Manchester, England, (it’s a BBC-HBO co-production) into the near future, while we simultaneously watch the political emergence of an abrasive businesswoman named Vivienne Rook, played by Emma Thompson. We live among the Lyonses, as the specifics of their financial and emotional worlds rise and fall according to historical events, and we watch Rook on their laptop screens, smugly spouting ugly ideas (you have to pass an IQ test to vote) as she rises to prominence.
In a way, the six-part miniseries, which premieres Monday at 9 p.m., is something like “Black Mirror” in its predictive nature. Netflix’s sci-fi anthology series similarly focuses on the day after tomorrow, as it pushes our various technological developments to daunting and disturbing excesses. In “Years and Years,” we do see creepy technology-based advances, including surgically implanted cellphones, blood tests that predict life expectancy, and breath scans that are required for crossing borders. The show has dark fun with the future, too, with newfangled synthetic alcohol, super-efficient virtual home assistants, drone parks, and a “towntime” movement that rejects working at home in favor of going to the office. Some events — the death of Queen Elizabeth, a nuclear strike, climate-change disasters — add a queasy sense of surreality.
But — and this is an essential but — “Years and Years” is also a fully developed human drama with characters we get to know intimately across the episodes (four of which were available for review). The miniseries was created and written by the extraordinary Russell T Davies, who is responsible for the rebooted “Dr. Who” and the groundbreaking original version of “Queer as Folk,” and Davies knows how to build characters and ensembles. Like “Six Feet Under” creator Alan Ball, Davies has an infectious compassion for the family of individuals at the center of his story (think of “Years and Years” as a slower, less elegiac version of the “Six Feet Under” finale).
The matriarch of the Lyons family is Muriel (Anne Reid), the spiky, wonderful grandmother of four siblings who are still in her life. Stephen — and the spelling of his name becomes relevant — is a financial adviser played by Rory Kinnear (who adds some “Black Mirror” cred; he was the “Piggate” prime minister in that series’ first episode). Rosie (Ruth Madeley) is the gallows-humor-loving youngest, and she has spina bifida and is in a wheelchair. Russell Tovey plays gay brother Daniel, a housing officer, and Jessica Hynes is Edith, a political activist. There are boyfriends, girlfriends, wives, husbands, and children, all of whom are distinctly drawn and developed across the years, particularly Stephen’s wife, Celeste (T’Nia Miller).
One of the most touching stories involves Daniel’s encounters with a man, Viktor (Maxim Baldry), who fled Ukraine after being tortured for being gay. You realize Davies is taking on immigrant and LGBTQ issues, but the story remains the story, and not a vehicle for ideas, with its great specificities.
The miniseries certainly has a sense of dystopia coursing through it, particularly when world events turn grim; but then the humanity of the characters and, in particular, their profound bonds buoy everything we see. I was surprised by how moved I was at times at the fates of the Lyonses. The weather may be lousy for years and years to come, Davies seems to be saying, and society may become more and more coldly robotic; but perhaps something bright inside us will survive.
YEARS AND YEARS
Starring: Emma Thompson, Rory Kinnear, Russell Tovey, Ruth Madeley, T’Nia Miller, Jessica Hynes, Anne Reid, Maxim Baldry, Dino Fetscher
On: HBO, Monday at 9 p.m.