HBOs Years and Years:  family drama, part comedy, part science fiction, and part political allegory.
HBO's Years and Years: family drama, part comedy, part science fiction, and part political allegory. Matt Squire/HBO
HBO’s gambit of airing original content on Monday nights is already paying off handsomely, with Chernobyl one of the most talked-about and praised shows of the year so far. Tonight, HBO launches its third Monday-night series—following Chernobyl and Gentleman Jack—and like its predecessors, it’s a co-venture with a British production company.

Sponsored
Tell UW Medicine to invest in healthcare workers!
Healthcare workers at Harborview and UW Medical Center-Northwest care for you. Now it’s time for UW Medicine to care for us.

Years and Years, which just wrapped up its six-episode run on the BBC before hopping the pond tonight for American audiences, is a decidedly British endeavor, but one that speaks to problems that currently face the entire globe. It’s an audacious, fascinating, stressful, and at times clunky show, but it’s also the kind of appointment viewing that will likely earn deep affection from a number of its watchers. You could very well adore it.

As far as what it is, that’s a little harder to determine, as it's part family drama, part comedy, part science fiction, and part political allegory. I guess you could call it a dystopian soap opera. Written by Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies, Years and Years follows the lives of four adult siblings from Manchester, England, during the years 2019 through 2034. We’re thrown into their world essentially the day after tomorrow, and we follow not just the two sisters and two brothers but their extended families—including wives, boyfriends, children, and a stubborn but saintly old grandmother.

yearsandyears.jpeg
Matt Squire/HBO
Strangely, none of the show’s drama stems from any of the inter-sibling relationships: Their mother is dead and their father is estranged, so—perhaps resultantly—they’re especially loving and tolerant of one another. Rather, the Lyons siblings are buffeted and battered by outside forces, such as the Brexit fallout, Trump trade policies, bank closures, food scarcity, and the global refugee crisis. And beneath it all, we see how technology preserves the family dynamic, as the family stays in touch through a dedicated group chat, assisted by the Alexa-like “Signor.”

The end result is a bizarre hybrid of Black Mirror and This Is Us, with some really goofy speculation about future tech and a sentimental streak a mile wide. This odd blend works more often than not, largely due to the effective, excellent cast, with Rory Kinnear, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes, and Ruth Madeley as the four siblings. Madeley, the actor, has spina bifida, and it’s beyond refreshing to see the way Years and Years depicts her character: with a disability but not defined by it. Kinnear’s and Madeley's characters have interracial families, and Tovey’s character is gay; the show is subtly but aggressively inclusive in ways that we still rarely see in American television. The show also, correctly, accepts as fact that the future will bend towards inclusion and diversity, and does so tastefully without blatantly signposting it.

Support The Stranger

There’s one exception, though: the subplot in which one of Kinnear’s daughters claims she’s “trans-person”—as in, she believes she’s part machine. It’s a satirical jeer that, I think unintentionally, takes aim at the strides the trans community has been making over recent years. It’s a miscalculation, sounding the wrong note in order to land a joke.

2cdb6cbe663963f15b3c1b4ef881d58536c1508c10d615c864b6fc36a1cb.jpeg
Robert Ludovic/HBO
Emma Thompson has a small role as a provocative, reactionary political figure, clearly modeled after Donald Trump. She’s a simultaneously vile and charming figure, with no real ideology or value system; she gains her first glimmers of notoriety by using a four-letter word on television, but bases much of her platform on acting indignant about the disintegration of so-called values. She champions ignorance while also pretending to be an expert on global politics; naturally, she’s in favor of isolationism, and one of the advantages of Years and Years is how it can leap into the future to project how damaging those types of policies will be. She is the embodiment of Britain’s biggest fears, and she’s a horrific thing to behold.

As you might’ve guessed, the show’s not subtle. It more than occasionally lapses into histrionics, and is guilty of artificially elevating the drama in order to make speculative political arguments. But somewhat astonishingly, it does so without sacrificing the reality of the characters or the projected future-world in which they live. More often than not, Years and Years is a smart, funny, and genuinely emotional ride that comments on current-day anxieties and the pliable yet resilient nature of the family unit. It’s terrifying, tender, and true.


Years and Years begins tonight on HBO, and will air each Monday for the next six weeks.