As our planet cooks, so do our TV shows about social upheaval, modern ruin and other dystopian nightmares. Zombies beget handmaidens, making for some gripping end-of-everything depictions of doom, if you can stand the stress of watching. None, however, hurts as deeply as creator Russell T Davies’ eerily plausible “Years and Years,” a six-episode British drama that concluded Monday on HBO.
Sorely underwatched (between 250,000 and 300,000 cable viewers stuck with it each week, not counting those who streamed it), “Years and Years” is about the Lyons family — a relatively happy brood of adult siblings and their stalwart nonagenarian grandmother, Muriel (Anne Reid), in Manchester — who each endure a range of emotional setbacks and collateral damage as Britain succumbs to a populist wave.
By the time the Lyonses reckon with the world around them, their country has become a 21st-century fascist regime. Technology is merging with human bodies, entire neighborhoods have been cordoned off and some banks have collapsed. Undocumented immigrants and political dissenters are quietly sent to concentration camps to die of disease.
All of this doesn’t happen overnight — the episodes begin in 2019 and end in 2032. The Lyonses, who keep in touch via group calls on their Alexa-like personal assistants (dubbed “Signor”), are at first merely befuddled by the rise of Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), an entrepreneur turned politician who is celebrated for her brash and even profanely nationalistic and xenophobic opinions.
The Lyons clan is at first too busy with everyday life (raising kids, having affairs, celebrating milestones) to pay politics much mind — save for the family radical, Edith (Jessica Hynes), an activist and writer who happens to be within viewing distance of China’s strategically man-made island, Hong Sha Dao, on the night U.S. President Trump destroys it with a nuclear bomb.
Watching the horror unfold on TV in Manchester (and listening to sirens blare across the city), the Lyons family at first believes they’re witnessing the beginning of global annihilation.
It doesn’t come. One of the ingenious aspects of “Years and Years” is how it taps into today’s alarming lack of expected consequences, particularly where political leadership is involved. Davies turns our everyday anxieties into a telescoped haiku poem of galling new realities, where outrages tend to pile up instead of leading to retribution.
The Lyonses are a wired, well-informed family of citizen/consumers with mostly moderate to left-leaning views. They nevertheless get incrementally swept up in the insidious revolution of Rooks’ Four Star Party and her rise to prime minister, replete with a swastika-esque logo. (Meanwhile, in the United States, Vice President Mike Pence is elected president after Donald Trump’s second term.)
To assuage their worries about the job market, financial adviser Stephen Lyons (Rory Kinnear) and his wife, Celeste (T’Nia Miller), sell their posh home at a significant profit, only to lose the proceeds when their bank goes under. Their elder daughter, Bethany (Lydia West), comes out with what her parents expect will be a declaration of transgender identity; instead Bethany professes her desire to transition into a fully digital existence, with hopes of one day uploading her brain to the cloud.
Stephen and Edith’s brother, Daniel (Russell Tovey), who works for the government’s housing authority, falls in love with a Ukrainian refugee, Viktor (Maxim Baldry), leading to a series of heartbreaking developments after Viktor is arrested and deported. Rosie (Ruth Madeley), the youngest of the Lyons siblings, miscalculates the extent of the political revolution around her and winds up living with her children and boyfriend in a barricaded ghetto with a strict curfew and limits on commerce.
Along with all this, we see the collapse of Britain’s parliament and the complete shutdown of the BBC; ultimately, Stephen finds himself working for Rook’s operatives and taking a morally reprehensible opportunity to punish someone he knows.
Complicity isn’t always as obvious as Stephen’s. “Years and Years” is unsparing in its message that we all share blame for the state of the world. As the situation worsens, Muriel reminds her grandchildren and great-grandchildren that they all took part in the global economy that brought them, for example, that nice T-shirt that only cost a pound, disregarding the environmental resources and human labor it cost to make.
“We can sit here all day blaming other people,” Muriel says. “It’s our fault. This is the world we built. Congratulations. Cheers, all.”
“Years and Years” is one of the best shows of 2019 so far — worth going back and experiencing it in your own way. While remaining a deeply absorbing family story, as good or better than any season of “This Is Us,” “Years and Years” is depressing on top of depressing, which may explain why so many viewers took a pass. It’s hard enough to cope with the daily news cycle we have in 2019, much less imagine how much worse it could get. I also think HBO erred slightly with an ad campaign that made “Years and Years” seem darkly comedic and vaguely “Veep”-ish, perhaps about a family that’s embarrassed to be associated with Thompson’s slimy politician character. It turned out so much better, and more affecting, than that.
My praise for the show is not unqualified, however, as Davies (whose previous work includes the British version of “Queer as Folk” and a successful revamp of “Doctor Who”) stumbled greatly with Monday’s series finale. The ending got away from him, as the Lyons family members find themselves front and center in an instant rebellion — driving through barricades, liberating a concentration camp and uploading the classified information that leads to public backlash. Rook is arrested and her regime crumbles. For all the inexorable events that allowed her rise, her downfall comes all too easy; and after living all these years at a symbolic remove, the Lyons family is suddenly the key to saving England.
A hokey epilogue is heavy on Davies’ affinity for technological sci-fi uplift: Edith, who has been slowly dying from the fallout of the nuclear explosion she witnessed in Episode 1, becomes the first of the Lyons clan to experience an afterlife in the cloud, where she vows to digitally haunt Rook and her backers. It’s a bit much. Yet, given the general tone of topically dystopian TV, viewers must take happy endings wherever we can get them.
Years and Years (six episodes) is available on-demand at HBO and its streaming platforms.