It’s only May, but BBC One may have just dropped the best TV show of the year onto our screens. Years and Years is a microcosm of everything that makes Russell T Davies a televisual genius – and of everything that makes our modern world confusing and terrifying. It follows 15 years in Britain through the eyes of a single family, jumping forwards with every episode in ways that are as surprising as they are horribly plausible.
That balance of convincing human relationships and slightly fantastical invention was the signature of his tenure on Doctor Who, and it’s lost none of its magic here, as we’re introduced to the Lyons family, from Rory Kinnear’s work-at-home dad Stephen and his proud wife Celeste (T’Nia Miller) to their digital-loving daughter Bethany (Lydia West) and Rosie (Ruth Madeley), born with spina bifida but mostly bothered by awkward dates. Amid them all is Daniel (the always-excellent Russell Tovey), who is starting to have doubts about his engagement to Ralph, and finds himself drawn to Viktor (Maxim Baldry), a refugee from the Ukraine. And looming over everyone is the controversial politician Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), who slowly and surely claws her way to power.
From a scandal on telly in 2019 to a broadcast in 2024, things go from compelling and sweet to extraordinary and nail-biting – and that’s just the opening episode. Five more hours follow, and Davies expertly twists the existential knife with each new chapter, examining with alarming immediacy and insight how the shifting politics and technology of the planet and country impact each person’s lives.
The production design is impeccable, from the way that people interface with the web to the way that communicate with each other – each aspect taken just one step beyond our current world without becoming far-fetched, emphasising the alien feeling of this transforming civilisation. On a plotting level, too, the storytelling is immaculate: as well as grounding fantasy in plausible details, Davies is also a dab-hand at blending the personal and the political, and so we see petty acts of revenge take major tolls on other people, financial necessity push people into uncomfortable moral dilemmas, or drive others back into activism, and, underneath it all, the disempowered and disenchanted finding some comfort and inspiration in the rhetoric of Rook’s outsider, who has the confidence of personality to break privacy laws and say offensive things just to get attention and exposure.
In between this all, the family still goes through the same traditions, from group calls as Stephen is cycling to work to everyone gathering for birthdays and funerals. And it’s here that Years and Years finds its gripping, relatable truth: that no matter what happens in the wider world, no matter how bad things get, it’s natural human behaviour to close the curtains and retreat into day-to-day routine: some things, on a personal level, never change, and it’s by focusing on that constant that people can turn a blind eye to all manner of shocking events. And yet Davies finds hope in that same instinct: by focusing on staying loyal and helping loved ones people can rally a response to national and international situations, stepping out into the world to make a difference on the smallest, and sometimes most significant, of scales.
An extraordinary, timely and excellent performed ensemble piece, Years and Years is the TV show that 2019 needs and deserves. Here’s hoping that can’t be said of every year to come.
Years and Years is available on BBC iPlayer until 17th September 2019.
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