The Near-Future Shock of Years and Years

The HBO series stars Emma Thompson as a populist leader with dark plans.

Emma Thompson stars as the iconoclastic politician Vivienne Rook in HBO's 'Years and Years.'
Though she only directly interacts with the Lyons family a handful of times, Rook (or “Viv,” as she quickly becomes known around the U.K.) is part and parcel of their lives, a symptom and a stoker of discontent across the country. (HBO)

There’s a moment about 15 minutes into the first episode of Years and Years that made me gasp at its audacity, its prescience, its visual horror. The new six-part series from the British writer Russell T. Davies (Doctor Who, A Very English Scandal) charts the life of the Lyons family over the course of 15 years, starting in 2019 and ending in 2034. It’s a kitchen-sink saga that barrels its way through births and marriages and betrayals, but also through the near-future. In 2024, Stephen Lyons (played by Rory Kinnear), a financial adviser, is at home with his wife, Celeste (T’nia Miller), both rushing their way through the morning routine. When the camera turns to their teenage daughter Bethany (Lydia West), her face isn’t recognizably human. Instead, she looks like a 3-D version of a Snapchat puppy, with vast cartoon eyes, wagging pink ears, and a brown snout. When she talks, her voice is grotesquely distorted, a robotic hallucination of a child’s cadence. “I might have to start limiting filter time,” Celeste says in the same exasperated, noncommittal way that you might think, I really should spend less time on Twitter.

This is the way dystopia happens, Years and Years says: Not with a bang, but with a series of exhausted shrugs. The sight of Bethany’s augmented-reality features—projected over her face by the two thin bands of a headset she tucks behind her ears—isn’t jarring because it’s improbable. It’s alarming because it’s too plausible for comfort.

Davies, who’s long been a funny, generous chronicler of human foibles and frailty in the present, is also a spookily deft prognosticator, it turns out. And the anxious thrill of watching Years and Years—which debuts on HBO Monday—comes not only from seeing the future unfurl in front of you, but also from watching how it ripples through the lives of this very modern, delightfully fractious family. Sometimes the changes are practical: At the start of the series, the Lyons siblings have to text and call each other to communicate, while a few years later, they’re all connected via an Alexa-like virtual assistant called “Signor.” Sometimes the societal shifts are more treacherous, as when abstract-seeming developments around the world lead to events that put family members in grave danger. It isn’t all bad. When the second episode aired on BBC a month ago, it included a scene in which Rosie Lyons (Ruth Madeley), who has spina bifida, tells her family that medical advances have enabled doctors to repair spinal defects while babies are still in utero. (Just this week, the Cleveland Clinic announced that a team of surgeons had managed to do exactly that for the first time in medical history.)

Davies interweaves the story of the Lyonses with the political ascendance of a populist leader named Vivienne Rook, played with grim Mancunian relish by Emma Thompson. Though she only directly interacts with the family members a handful of times, Rook (or “Viv,” as she quickly becomes known around the U.K.) is part and parcel of their lives, a symptom and a stoker of discontent across the country. In the first episode, Rook, an entrepreneur, is appearing on a BBC politics show when she launches into a profane tirade about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict overriding issues she insists matter more to British people: parking, litter, trash collection. The audience is electrified. The Lyonses frantically text one another their thoughts while Rook trends nationwide. At the end of her rant, she looks at the camera with a glint in her eye, and says, “I have got you listening now, haven’t I?” Soon enough, she’s running for office.

The Lyons family in Years and Years (HBO)

As Rook’s political fortunes rise, the Lyonses fall victim to the same circumstances that are leading voters to embrace Rook: financial crises, floods of refugees, a standoff between the U.S. (led by President Donald Trump in his second term) and China. The pace of change is breathtaking. Daniel Lyons (Russell Tovey), who’s married to Ralph (Dino Fetscher), works with Ukrainians seeking political asylum from draconian anti-LGBTQ laws, which draws him into the orbit of the magnetic refugee Viktor (Maxim Baldry). Stephen and Celeste try to come to terms with revelations about Bethany’s identity. Rosie, an early fan of Rook’s, supports her even more fiercely after technological developments phase Rosie out of the workplace. Edith (Jessica Hynes), an activist, returns home after conflict overseas threatens her health. As the show proceeds, characters refer casually to other eventualities: butterflies have disappeared, bananas don’t grow anymore, all teenagers now have mandatory sexual-awareness imaging control classes in school.

The brittle, nervy feeling of watching Years and Years is amped up by stylistic choices, like the heavy-handed crescendoing score of a children’s choir every time things start falling apart. It also comes from simple recognition. In 2011, when the dark speculative series Black Mirror debuted on Channel 4, its creator, Charlie Brooker, wrote an article for The Guardian about what he most wanted the show to achieve. “We routinely do things,” he wrote, “that just five years ago would scarcely have made sense to us.” Black Mirror, once so prescient that it imagined a buffoonish TV character being elected prime minister, has struggled to stay ahead of a reality evolving faster than Brooker can apparently imagine. Its most recent episodes dealt with scenarios playing out not in some wildly speculative future, but in the present: addictive social-media platforms, holograms, the exploitation of celebrities’ images without their consent.

Years and Years, by contrast, sees the darkest trends of the past decade and takes them to their logical extension five (or 15) years from now. It maps out how easy it is for a politician like Rook to catapult her way into power by appealing to nativist instincts, but also the absurdity of focusing on local grievances rather than catastrophic global crises that threaten everyone. Thompson is brilliantly menacing as Rook, communicating her absolute self-certainty, along with just enough ambiguity to make you wonder if power is everything she’s after. In a world this unpredictable, who can tell?