Emma Thompson
Photo: Robert Ludovic (HBO)
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The most talked-about HBO series of the season each provide their own unique reasons to feel uneasy about the world beyond our screens, and the premium-cable channel concludes the summer bummer trilogy that started with Chernobyl and Euphoria with a 15-year projection of nuclear strikes, technology that allows sulky teens to project Snapchat-style filters over their faces IRL, and the harrowing image of Emma Thompson as an authoritarian demagogue. Co-produced with BBC One and CANAL+, Years And Years is the story of the Lyons, a Mancunian family at various rungs of the socioeconomic ladder who watch the rapid change occurring around them with a mix of with horror, confusion, and occasional glee.

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And we do mean watch: For better and worse, one aspect of the modern condition that Russell T. Davies’ latest series absolutely nails is the masochistic impulse to keep our faces pressed to any available source of news and information. Faux-broadcasts of unrest and election results build the Lyons’ world and fill in the blanks of the montages—accompanied by a sublimely silly combination of choral vocals and orchestral-metal thrumming from Davies’ go-to composer, Murray Gold—that fast-forward to every new year in the family’s life. The characters are all introduced in front of their televisions, witnesses to the profane spotlight moment for the series’ avatar-cum-boogeyman, businesswoman-turned-politician Vivienne Rook (Thompson). While his boyfriend titters at Rook’s broken taboos, second Lyons son Daniel (Russell Tovey) registers his disgust in a text to brother Stephen (Rory Kinnear). Stephen’s wife, Celeste (T’Nia Miller) is briefly enchanted by Rook’s candor, but that’s broken by the news that their youngest sister, Rosie (Ruth Madeley) is going into labor. Banker Stephen heads home to take the family’s beloved grandmother, Muriel (Anne Reid), to meet her newest great-grandchild; missing it all (or is she?) is the clan’s resident radical, Edith (Jessica Hynes), traipsing around the globe on world-saving crusades her siblings don’t think very much of.

It’s an efficient window into their connected and disconnected relationships, and the son Rosie gives birth to pulls Years And Years into its defining conceptual gambit, making the first of many time jumps to 2024, after Rook has missed her first shot at public office, a military coup in Ukraine puts Daniel in contact with a striking refugee named Viktor (Maxim Baldry), and Donald Trump is on his way out of the White House at the end of a second term. It’s in those last two details that Years And Years makes its forecast for the next decade-and-a-half known: Pessimistic, bordering on nihilistic. The premiere ends in a flurry of panic that suggests the series is about to go post-apocalyptic, but the following three episodes (HBO screened four of Years And Years’ six parts for critics) demonstrate that this nerve-rattling crescendo is but one blip on a very crowded radar.

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It’s an enticing curiosity as a world-weary projection; it’s not all together there as a family drama. When spouses cheat, when a parent dies, those milestones are held up against the economic, political, and technological sins of the early 21st century repeating and amplifying themselves, and the impact can be disproportionate. A bigger hurdle emerges in the way Years And Years treats the Lyons as a microcosm for its prophesied tumult—whereas the series takes an admirably light touch to showing the characters’ increasing ages, it’s a jackhammer with regard to showing how their lives reflect the times. It’s not enough that a financial crisis wipes out Stephen and Celeste’s personal wealth; Stephen then contorts himself into a jack of all gig economy trades. Exposure to radioactive fallout puts a ticking clock on Edith’s life expectancy. Daniel gets pulled into an immigration melodrama whose stakes grow so high, they probably could’ve supported a series all of their own.

The cast is one of Years And Years’ biggest draws, and Hynes and Tovey especially do some excellent work, but they’re playing caricatures, outlines from an op-ed about “surviving in these troubled times.” Viktor suffers the most in this regard: His story is relevant and urgent, and yet it ultimately renders him nothing more than a victim of Daniel’s poor decisions. Fitting for a show that has a firm grasp on how little control the Lyons have over their destinies, but also indicative of its approach to telling small stories within such an outsized framework.

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At its best, Years And Years is like a limited-series-as-ant-farm; more frequently, however, it feels like it’s sadistically frying those ants under a magnifying glass. This, coupled with its near-future setting and the transhumanist interests of Celeste and Stephen’s daughter Bethany (Lydia West), can make Years And Years look like a prequel to any number of Black Mirror’s dystopian realities. (An impression intensified by the presence of “The National Anthem” prime minister Kinnear, and one fairly solid, fairly out-of-place sex-robot gag.) Like that anthology series, there’s a thought-experiment distance to watching Years And Years: What would it look like if one relatively untroubled family attempted to carry on while the world around them became the worst version of itself? In time, would all their adversities flatten out? Would the troubles of a dozen or so little people amount to a hill of beans in this world? Sure, but Years And Years never makes these people anything more than the sum of the problems and anxieties currently playing out on the other side of the screen.