Russell T. Davies’ new near-future family drama gives us diverse people to relate to and pretty much everything to worry about.
This Years and Years Episode 1 recap contains spoilers.
Russell T. Davies is the writer behind Years and Years, the edgy new BBC/HBO drama, in which he has taken samples from all kinds of demographics and squished them all together into one family. I know I complained when something similar was done in Collateral last year, but I must say this new show does it a little more effectively: they are not simply caricatures but each has genuine parts to play in the story of their family.
In essence, that’s what Years and Years is: a modern family drama. It starts this year, and covers the next fifteen years or so over six episodes, following a jump of five years partway through this opening episode. Because of the near-future setting, there is a good deal of speculation in terms of technological development, politics and social nuances (some more a stretch than others). Many of those changes are in the background to the story (this is a family drama after all, not a sci-fi), not a key part of the plot itself; so the focus of the writing is on the way the family members respond to the world they’re in, and the impact political uncertainty and modern technology has on them. This is essentially where Years and Years differs from Black Mirror (though the comparison is understandable): it’s about the people more than the tech.
But it’s also about a complete and utter lack of hope, or at least that’s what I get from episode one. Right at the beginning, when a new baby is born to Rosie (Ruth Madeley), there is a debate – nay soliloquy! – about the wisdom of bringing a child into the world. Rosie’s brother Daniel (Russell Tovey, Humans) lists all the things to be scared of, from corporations to America… and then we fast forward through the family highlights to 2024, only to find out the world is still in a bad state: Trump is nearing the end of his second term, refugees from Ukraine are “flooding into” the UK and things are getting heated between the USA and China. Technological changes include widespread use of an Alexa-style device in the home, as well as a family robot (sometimes used for less family-friendly purposes), and Instagram-style filters available for real-life interactions.
Those latter two lead to interesting sub-plots… indeed most of the family have little strands of their own to follow: Bethany (Lydia West) doesn’t feel comfortable in her body; Rosie has a date with Tony (Noel Sullivan from Hear’Say!); Daniel is drawn away from his husband to a fling with one of the refugees, etc. All these people are held together by grandmother Muriel (Anne Reid, Coronation Street, Hot Fuzz, etc.), who keeps up with social media technology but doesn’t always fit with social feelings. And all these plot strands fade into insignificance when the sense of doom becomes real in the final fifteen minutes of the episode.
And oh, that conclusion was tense! An emergency broadcast on the TV coincides with a phone call from Edith (Jessica Hynes, Spaced) the sister who had not been seen for years as she works overseas in crisis situations. As the phone call breaks down, everything breaks down… you should really see it, rather than reading here what happens; suffice it to say that the first three-quarters of the show, which felt like a slightly-edgy-slightly-humorous soap opera, suddenly changed and had me near tears in fear. Granted, it was an emotionally manipulative cliffhanger, with thumping music from Murray Gold blanketing all the cheers and screams, then one of the siblings asking “what’s going to happen now? What’s going to happen now?”… but it worked, very well. I would have happily watched the next episode straight away, but I’ll be setting a reminder for next week instead.
You may have heard Emma Thompson (The Children Act, etc.) is in Years and Years, and yes, though she is not part of this family I’ve focused on. In Years and Years Episode 1, her character, Vivienne Rook, is a political commentator, though not strictly a politician at first… think Boris Johnson’s political start. Apparently, her character was inspired by Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and others who started in the private sector and then went into politics as people’s representatives. It’s difficult to know how her rise is going to fit with the family story – perhaps one of the siblings is going to become a member of her fledgling “Four Star Party” – but she’s certainly a well observed and interesting character.
Overall, Years and Years has had a thought-provoking and entertaining start. What makes it really the stuff of canteen conversations will be the overall tone of the show: we may not know how realistic the future is, as presented, but it certainly feels real; not least because it’s cannily written with little touches of the world we know (Trump as president, the passing of Doris Day in the news). One viewer even mentioned on Twitter that he struggled to see the join between the end of this show and the News at Ten, which is very telling. I think it helped that there was not much humor (though a couple of scenes were clearly there to lighten the mood): it is speculative drama, rather than outright satire. Fascinating stuff: I’m going to keep watching.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.