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‘Years and Years’ is TV’s most haunting show

Emma Thompson in the HBO miniseries “Years and Years.”
Emma Thompson in the HBO miniseries “Years and Years.”Robert Ludovic/HBO

Is this big rock we live on hurtling forward faster than ever? Each day seems to bring on too many brave new developments, from the shifting of world political leaders and the costs of climate change to the cruel treatment of immigrants and those seeking asylum.

I greet the chaos and haste with anxiety, wondering apprehensively what could possibly happen next. What does the near future hold for us, as the speed of change makes us feel like our lives have been edited by Michael Bay or MTV? What are we rushing into?

And I suspect others feel the same, as a number of TV series express the jitters about tomorrow. Movies are our dreams, I often think, but TV is our stream of consciousness, revealing our collective thoughts and feelings in real time. And so we have the misogynistic theocracy of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the technological crises of “Black Mirror,” a reboot of “The Twilight Zone,” and the AI apocalyptics of “Westworld,” among other current TV angst-filled series about where we are heading.

But the drama about tomorrow that haunts me most right now is “Years and Years.” The HBO miniseries, which finishes its six-episode run on Monday, has gotten under my skin this summer, just as phone hardware literally gets under the skin of one of the major characters. It plays out like a perfectly detailed production of one of my anxiety dreams, as the ice caps melt and kindness and democracy drown in the overflow. The HBO-BBC coproduction steadily jumps ahead in the life of a British family, the Lyonses, condensing some 15 years in six hours, and in the process it brings us into a world of authoritarian governments, environmental disasters, banking crises, and high-tech compromises to our humanity.


Part of the power of the show, which is from Russell T Davies of “Dr. Who,” “Queer as Folk,” and “A Very English Scandal,” is the way that major world developments — privatized refugee concentration camps, housing shortages, a US nuclear attack on a Chinese military base ordered by President Trump — spring out of the way we live now. When the show opens on the Lyons family, life is fully recognizable. But by 2024, with Trump in his second term, logical — and disturbing — extensions of life in 2019 begin to reveal themselves. When teenager Bethany (Lydia West) indicates discomfort with her body, her parents affectionately encourage her to come out as trans. But yeah — she actually means “transhuman,” and she eventually hopes to upload her brain into the cloud and let go of her body. “I don’t want to be flesh,” she tells her shocked parents.


So the future on “Years and Years” isn’t just a leap ahead into scary extremes so much as wading into deeper and deeper water. Life goes on for the Lyons family of Manchester, as the nightly news delivers its distresses in the background — most notably the political rise of Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), a businesswoman whose profanity wins her a lot of attention. It’s the same for us right now, really; we still go to school and work and attend concerts and movies and watch TV while, somewhere out there, civility and diversity are falling apart chunk by chunk. You can see how dangers creep up on the family unawares, as they cope with their usual daily hurdles.


And then boom: The dangers are erupting, and they begin to have an impact on the family, which Davies pulls off beautifully. Each of the Lyonses is ultimately affected somehow by at least one of the changes in international governing, in the health of the planet, or in the amorality of technology. And yet the miniseries doesn’t feel like it’s straining to make the family into a relevant microcosm; they seem as though they just happen to be on the receiving end of these world shifts. The excellent cast, who immediately give the family a nice, lived-in sense of history right from the start, help make it all happen organically.

The most poignant story line follows Daniel (Russell Tovey), one of the four adult Lyons siblings, who has fallen in love with a Ukrainian refugee, Viktor (Maxim Baldry), who is facing a heartless removal. Daniel’s sister Edith (Jessica Hynes) also finds herself forever marked by the onslaught of history, after her activism exposes her to radioactive fallout. And brother Stephen (Rory Kinnear) — he, too, is forever altered by the collapse of his bank. No one can escape the future, “Years and Years” reminds us; no one is immune. The only salve may be something the Lyonses certainly have: love, resilience, and loyalty.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.