“Years and Years,” an HBO miniseries that debuted earlier this year, is simultaneously harrowing, hopeful and amusingly speculative as it attempts to paint a picture of what the near future might hold for the world. Told through the eyes of tight-knit English family the Lyons, the show follows the four adult Lyons siblings and their grandmother as they navigate the demands and crises of their world.
The show’s first episode begins in late 2019 after an American nuclear attack on China disrupts the stability of global peace and democracy. The episode then ends by jumping to 2025, where the next five episodes go year by year and consider the financial, political and technological implications of the 2019 nuclear attack through the eyes of the Lyons family.
Despite the relative brevity of the series — only six one-hour episodes — the show still manages to deftly juggle multiple narrative threads. Showrunner Russell T. Davies presents the members of the Lyons family in a conscientious, empathetic way that manages to flesh out their distinct lives and perspectives without sacrificing either scope or coherence.
The paths of the four Lyons and their families diverge and intersect, but even as the show switches focus from one character to another, the humanity of their personalities holds the viewer’s interest.
When the romance of Daniel Lyons (Russel Tovey) and his partner, Ukranian refugee Viktor Goraya (Maxim Baldry), takes a turn, the story unflinchingly shows the couple’s struggle to gain citizenship for Viktor amid the harsh realities of Europe’s refugee crisis. Moments like this put a face on each disaster facing the world and keep the show from getting caught up in the minutiae of big-picture social and political changes.
The world of the show is familiar in the people and values that populate its environment but also shocking because of the new forms that present-day problems have taken.
“Years and Years” pulls no punches when telling its stories. However, in some ways, this no-holds-barred look at a potential future for the English family might be too bleak to the point of unbelievability, as more and more of what can go wrong, whether geopolitically, financially or environmentally, does indeed go wrong.
From dirty bombs to refugee crises to fascist government takeovers, the universe created for “Years and Years” feels more like a conspiracy theorist’s worst-case scenario more than a realistic reflection on the world’s current direction.
Sometimes, the show similarly seems more concerned with reminding the viewer of the potential for darkness in its world rather than giving the viewer a chance to breathe or get lost in the small pleasures of daily life that inevitably would make the pain of this new world more bearable.
The catastrophes that start the show off constantly beget more crises to deal with, and the show’s characters seem to be in a constant state of reaction rather than having any time to develop their own agency in the face of disaster.
Additionally, the show struggles with balancing its tendencies toward fatalism and moralizing in presenting a compelling imagining of the future. Several of the show’s plotlines conclude, if not with an explicit moral statement for the viewer, then with an implicit hint at the dangers of what the future might become, which begins to feel heavy-handed and overly didactic as the show goes on.
For example, Bethany Bisme-Lyons (Lydia West), a supporting character and the daughter of Stephen Lyons (Rory Kinnear) and his wife Celeste Bisme-Lyons (T’Nia Miller), wants to use technology that more and more deeply integrates with the human body to become “trans-human,” leaving the physical world completely.
The show presents this concept fearfully, in a way reminiscent of the British series “Black Mirror,” as the costs of a technological advancement are clearly broadcast to the viewer while its potential benefits are generally less explicitly stated.
Avoiding sentimentality may be partially to the show’s benefit, as one of its weakest moments comes in a final monologue that mines the hope that its future technology offers for a poignant close that seems incongruous with the tone of past episodes.
While “Years and Years” embraces cynicism in its depiction of the potential failings of its world, hope still springs from its characters. The Lyons are human and flawed in a charming way, and their portrayal allows the viewer to empathize with them even without knowing a full backstory or having any familiarity with their lives.
“Years and Years” fundamentally relies on its characters to drive the story, and even as the viewer watches the Lyons face new struggles with each passing year, the show remains anchored in their perspectives. The story keeps its focal point on their desire to survive in the face of their world’s challenges.
The show’s ability to create a compelling and believable atmosphere comprises one of its greatest strengths. The show — as well as its chaotic, sometimes jarring soundtrack — invites the viewer into a future that might be far too bleak to be entertaining, but not too inhuman to ignore.