Melding sci-fi and soap-y domesticity is nothing new to showrunner Russell T Davies, nor is incrementally showing modern Britain descending into fascism. Yet his 2019 miniseries YEARS AND YEARS still feels delightfully new, not really the sort of “BLACK MIRROR, but six episodes!” the promotion made out, but a rumination on family and temporality (very well done), and how populist fascism can insidiously rise up (drawn in much broader strokes, but well done…for the first five episodes).
The show’s central gimmick of episodic montages that zoom forward in time to a cacophony of liberal dystopia porn (President Mike Pence! Conflated far-left and far-right parties, courtesy of horseshoe theory! Russian cyberattacks!) works mostly because of composer Murray Gold’s regular brilliance, but there’s something fascinating in seeing that macro sense of how a family journeys through the years, particularly the fundamental stasis of it even in the face of events that surely should see some form of termination (this is usually done very realistically, but reaches absolute absurdism in a certain character being forgiven for a profoundly unforgivable action come the finale, not played at all cynically the way it’d need to be to feel grounded).
It’s very much a show to get one thinking (and talking!), but while it’s possible the finale is a typical case of Russell T Davies clambering for hope and happiness no matter what (his case that happy endings are infinitely more valuable than tragic endings because happy endings are only possible in fiction is legitimately fascinating, but his madcap writing style doesn’t always see that realised in ways cohesive with episodes preceding finales), it’s so reductive in political terms that it mars a lot of what I assumed was cynical or pointed earlier in the series, like an undercurrent of hypocrisy under characters proclaiming how the world had gotten so much worse and more complicated, or failures of a neoliberal society placed at the feet of consumer choices. Still, the show’s rumination on concentration camps in episode five is legitimately fantastic, a scathing acknowledgement of forgotten history and inhuman oppression. An arc that slowly reveals itself to be a methodical humanisation of refugee experiences also works wonderfully.
The treatment of future technology is normally cutesy (I particularly enjoyed the increasingly bizarre food developments), but dangerous cybernetic implants are conflated with being transgender in a very disquieting way I only hope was ill-thought-out and nothing more. Transhuman characters are explicitly parallelled with transgender people in the show, yet also explicitly yearn for their bodies to be destroyed in dodgy hospitals across the world; it’s all very ridiculous and speaks to a type of sci-fi pretension that I hate; the idea that by comparing a fictional issue to an insanely reductive real world social issue (the X-Men are a parallel to LGBT people!) bestows any meaningful worth or relevancy onto that fiction, and that there could surely be nothing damaging in that parallel because, after all, it’s situated on the “right side”. But there’s nearly always a myriad of issues in how that’s done (Aug lives matter!), and often it leads to queasy equivalences like so here.
Still, this is a Russell T Davies show, so it’s all about the characters, and they absolutely shine. The younger generations are poorly-served, getting barely any lines really, but the rest of the Lyons family are brought to life excellently by their cast, and receive lovely, nuanced characterisations from the scripts. Emma Thompson’s proto-fascist figure is in the show far, far, far less than the promotion suggested, but does great work with what little she’s given, and I’ve come away with a mixed mind over whether I liked the purity of how the show filtered everything purely through the Lyons’ family’s perspective (meaning Thompson’s character was virtually only seen through them seeing her on TV), or wished that excellent casting and conception of a character had been capitalised on more. Still, up until a finale that provided painfully trite answers to complex political realities the show had mostly realised well, it was an enthralling experience. Three and a half Blinks, and a face filter.