‘Years and Years’ charts chaotic future through one family

Posted at 10:51 AM, Jun 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-24 12:51:26-04

Writer Russell T Davies has seamlessly moved between science fiction (“Doctor Who,” “Torchwood”) and character-driven dramas (“Queer as Folk”), but he’s found a doozy of a way to wed those genres in “Years and Years,” a BBC series whose near-future dystopia should resonate, in select circles, on both sides of the pond.

What Davies has done, essentially, is combine a family soap opera with elements of “Black Mirror.” HBO is airing the six-episode limited series in the US (it’s already finished in the UK), which plays a key supporting role in this provocative drama that opens in 2019, then leaps several years ahead to find the world roiled by conservative nationalist movements and, yes, a second-term President Donald Trump.

The key to that conceit is seeing all this unfold through the trials and tribulations of one extended family, the Lyons, a clan that follows politics pretty closely and occasionally finds itself on the wrong side of it, including anti-gay legislation that directly affects the life of one of the grown sons (Russell Tovey).

As the family notes, America, of all places, is suddenly among their list of worries, although the show also charts rising levels of insanity within the UK. Specifically, a celebrity turned political demagogue, Vivienne Rook (a brilliant Emma Thompson), propels herself to national prominence by saying outlandish things — the kind of erratic, provocative behavior that’s catnip for the media.

“You’re just saying words,” a rival candidate marvels — when Rook mangles the concept of tariffs, no less — during a televised debate, the kind of embarrassing slam that she somehow manages to contort to her own advantage.

As the show progresses, there’s a growing sense of chaos, illustrated through rapid-fire clips of bank failures and international tensions. At the same time, the family goes through more conventional crises — some related to the broader turmoil — such as the strained finances of eldest son Stephen (Rory Kinnear), which eventually begins to impact his marriage.

Along the way, Davies incorporates plenty of what feels like five-minutes-in-the-future technology, including cellphones being surgically implanted into the user’s hand.

The juxtaposition of the personal and public, the macro and micro, doesn’t always mesh perfectly, but it’s consistently thought-provoking. “Years and Years” clearly wants to be unsettling, to provide a nightmarish taste of where Brexit and the 2016 US election and Europe’s refugee crisis aren’t necessarily heading but certainly could end up.

That won’t be for everyone, and it’s obviously not intended to be. Davies is speaking to those who will be receptive to the show’s misgivings, and for that audience, it’s the kind of programming that will get people talking, even if they can’t — yet, anyway — engage in that conversation by speaking into their palms.

“Years and Years” premieres June 24 at 9 p.m. on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.