One of the most startling new shows of 2019 is BBC/HBO’s Years & Years. The 6-part series is the brainchild of Russell T. Davies, who is likely best known stateside for running Doctor Who from 2005–2010. Gay audiences of a certain age, however, might know him as the creator of the original Queer as Folk, one of the first series to portray the lives of gay men honestly. Years and Years follows the Lyons, an upper middle class British family based in Manchester, as they confront an increasingly politically volatile Britain. The family is composed of Daniel and his boyfriend Ralph, Stephen and his wife Celeste, Rosie and her newborn son Leo, Edith, and the matriarch “Gran”/Muriel. The series has been billed as a political dystopia set to the rhythms of a This is Us style family melodrama. However, the delicate balancing act that this show achieves is no small feat.
The year is 2019, and Rosie (Ruth Madeley) has just given birth to a son, Lincoln, fathered by an absent Chinese lover. As Daniel (an excellent Russell Tovey) cradles his nephew, he ponders what kind of future will befall little Lincoln. Simultaneously, a businesswoman named Vivienne Rook (played by a perfectly cast Emma Thompson) declares on national television that she “doesn’t give a fuck” about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and that politicians should instead be focusing on issues that directly affect Britain at home. This figure, bearing more than a slight resemblance to our own POTUS, soon launches her own political party, the “Four Star Party,” and hits the campaign trail. Her populist rise, not surprisingly, causes divisions amongst the Lyons family, with Rosie becoming infatuated by her charisma and her nationalist rhetoric and Daniel seemingly the only one who recognizes the dangers of her ultra conservative agenda. Many others, meanwhile, dismissed her political prospects, much like many Americans did with Trump.
Showrunner Davies is regarded as one of the most influential TV writers of his generation, particularly for his portrayal of gay men, and he certainly lives up to his reputation here with Daniel’s storyline, the emotional centerpiece of the show. After months of aggression, a Russian military backed government takes over Ukraine and outlaws homosexuality, creating an influx of refugees to Britain and other European nations. This is where Daniel, a housing officer, meets Viktor (a charismatic Maxim Baudry), a young man who was tortured in his homeland for being gay. These two generate an instantaneous, near combustible chemistry, from the moment Viktor comes on to Daniel and he doesn’t back away, despite being a married man. Viktor shares the harrowing details of his torture and shows Daniel the burns on his foot, leading to one of the most gentle — and sensual — meet cutes I’ve ever seen on TV! At Gran’s 92nd birthday party, MIA sister Edith (Jessica Hynes) phones in from the coast of Vietnam, where emergency alarms are blaring and indicating an imminent threat. As it turns out, Trump has fired a nuclear missile at the Chinese built, artificial island Hong Sha Dao; the family spirals into a frenzy of squabbling and panic. In light of their potential mortality, Daniel impulsively leaves his husband and family and drives to the refugee camp to engage in a hot and heavy hookup with Viktor! And all of this happens in the pilot! To say that each episode is narratively and emotionally stuffed is an understatement.
What this show does well is it manages to create a world that feels at once realistically turbulent yet too terrible to imagine for most viewers, resulting in a truly unsettling viewing experience. On the one hand, these are events that are happening in our reality: the impending possibility of nuclear war and environmental meltdown, the rise of right-wing, totalitarian governments worldwide, the scaling back of social protections based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. On the other, Years & Years takes the current state of the world and piles on the socio-political crises at an alarmingly dizzying pace, imagining what might happen to a world power like Britain if someone like Rook, who can easily stand-in for Trump, eventually wielded enough influence to take her right-wing populist agenda to its extreme.
Of equal importance for the writers is highlighting the human costs of this totalitarian regime, even, or especially, for those who might seem immune to its effects due to the various privileges they possess. As filtered through this well-to-do, mostly white British family, each of them possesses a different threshold of tolerance for Rook’s conservative policies before they are galvanized into action. Take, for example, the youngest sibling Rosie. She confoundingly becomes a rabid Rook supporter, even though the latter is partially responsible for the machinations that result in Viktor’s deportation and send Daniel to Ukraine on an impossible rescue mission. One of the questions left unanswered (or perhaps that is unanswerable) is what precisely about Rook appeals to Rosie, given that she doesn’t appear to harbor any explicitly racist, homophobic, or otherwise conservative views.
In one extremely jarring scene, Daniel is explaining to Rosie that Viktor will have to reapply to be considered for asylum in Britain under stringent new laws and Rosie could not be bothered to feign interest in the matter. She mutters a rather inappropriate response and rolls her eyes as she hangs up the phone. What would possess her to adopt such a cavalier attitude toward her brother’s lover’s safety? It seemed completely incongruous with their otherwise tender relationship. Only when Rook enacts policies that directly affect her livelihood and her children’s safety does she realize the error of her ways and actively take a stand against Rook. Perhaps the lesson here is to demonstrate how seemingly sensible, liberal-minded people can become swept up in an irrational frenzy fueled by populist sentiment. Or, is this ultimately a parable about the inherent selfishness of human beings? Either way, it seems like more depth could’ve been lent to her character, which is true of several of the supporting players.
Ultimately, the character that is the most fleshed out is Thompson’s Rook. Perhaps this is because there are real-life inspirations for this despot, a la Trump or Britain’s own Boris Johnson. Thompson imbues Rook with unapologetic ruthlessness and incisive comedic timing, saying whatever comes to mind, political sensibilities be damned. She’s the villain through and through, given only a fleeting moment of vulnerability, in which she reveals that someone may be forcing her hand with her latest despicable proposal: a concentration camp programme for political dissidents, homosexuals, and other undesirables. But that moment of hesitation doesn’t last, and it’s her complete moral disregard that makes her eventual downfall so satisfying. Viewing Years and Years presently, and especially in light of Trump’s impeachment proceedings, it’s hard not to read the events of the finale as wish fulfillment. Without spoiling the proceedings, the finale proves to be a family affair, as what precipitates Rook’s toppling is the Lyons family coming together and recognizing their shared culpability in Rook’s ascension to power, galvanized by a fiery speech delivered by Muriel.
All in all, I appreciated the willingness of the series to lean into manic impulses and fractured psyches: the lengths people are willing to go to for love, the lines they’ll cross to gain power, and the toll that vengeance exacts. I also gained a newfound appreciation for Russell Tovey, whom I previously had only seen on Quantico. But damn, he delivers an aching, courageous performance here that will have you cheering him on, break your heart and just maybe restore hope for a brighter future. Bravo.