What is YEARS AND YEARS? What’s it about? Who’s it by? Why’s it worth watching? This overview and review answers those questions and more, and – wouldn’t you know – there’s a whole series of podcasts for each episode produced beforehand as well.
- BBC’s YEARS AND YEARS trailer. (1:17)
- HBO’s YEARS AND YEARS trailer. (1:22)
- A timely reference. (1:39)
- Cleaner rip of YEARS AND YEARS montage music from the YouTube channel “Jamie”. (9:01)
- RTD interview with Red Carpet News TV. (10:33)
- RTD interview with the Radio Times. (10:37)
VIV: I suppose, when it comes to Israel and Palestine, I don’t give a fuck.
YEARS AND YEARS is a British TV show, made in 2019 but about the world changing over the next 15 years. It follows how one family copes with the world getting crazier and scarier with every passing year, with each episode going further and further into the future.
DANIEL: ‘Cause if it’s this bad now, what’s it going to be like for you, huh? 30 years time, 10 years, 5 years? What’s it going to be like?
The point of YEARS AND YEARS isn’t just to predict the future.
NEWSCASTER: And the world awakens to a second term for President Donald Trump.
And the point isn’t just to capture how people feel today, with the world seeming to get increasingly insane.
BETHANY: I’m sorry Mummy!
The point is to show how a relatively nice, safe, comfy western society could descend into a kind of nightmare regime, like we hear about in other countries or throughout history, except with characters in a setting as close and relatable as possible.
It’s about how people can – or can’t! – survive through that kind of change and upheaval, what causes that sort of change and upheaval in the first place, and, always, it’s about our main family of characters doing their best to cope. It’s a futuristic family saga. Imagine a BLACK MIRROR vision of the future, but fleshed out over a whole series. An epic drama of a family’s experience as technology, politics, the climate, the whole world spirals out of control.
The show starts in 2019, and in fact is so timely that on the very day the first episode released, they managed to edit in news from that very same day into the episode at the last minute.
RADIO: Doris Day appears on most of the frontpages following her death yesterday at the age of 97.
Each episode has a montage that pushes the timeline further and further into the future. Sometimes it pushes forward a few months, sometimes a year, sometimes five years! All sorts of changes happen in the show’s future. At first they’re basically things we have already.
CELESTE: Signor, who’s Vivienne Rook?
SIGNOR: Vivienne Allison Rook.
But then…well, sometimes they’re small.
CELESTE: Turns out it’s a misdiagnosis for most of the world. What we thought was gluten intolerance turns out to be fructose intolerance.
Sometimes they’re generational.
Sometimes they’re extrapolations of how existing technology might develop, like social media filters.
CELESTE: Just talk to me properly.
BETHANY: Sorry pretty Mummy!
CELESTE: Why don’t you turn off that filter? So we can see you. Properly.
KEITH: Keith – loves – Millie.
But as the show moves forward, they get wilder and wilder.
Some characters, identifying as transhumans – people that believe in being transformed, improved even, by being augmented by technology – alter their bodies with cybernetic implants. Some of these surgeries don’t go exactly to plan.
But the future isn’t just about technology, and while the drastic – very drastic! – ways the future changes politically all go into spoiler territory, it’s safe to say they tend to focus on…the characters.
VIV: It all made sense up until a few years back. The left was the left, the right was the right, America was America.
DANIEL: Who’s she?
Vivienne Rook, played by the great Emma Thompson, is a political maverick who, in her words, doesn’t give a fuck.
HOST: …still in mourning after the death of Angela Merkel.
VIV: Oh, good riddance.
VIV: Well, you know, I don’t want to be rude, but the world just got a whole lot prettier.
MAN: You’ve got a great future in politics…
Most people dismiss her at first, thinking she’s too rude, too new to politics, too much of an outsider to ever really be a problem…but haven’t modern times showed us how naive that kind of thinking is? People act shocked at the kind of things she comes out with.
VIV: So I propose, in order to vote, every British citizen must take an IQ test.
Then get uncomfortable when they’re confronted with the fact a lot of what she says is something they kind of agree with on some level.
VIV: You say ‘take away the vote’.
ROSIE: You say it Dan! All the time! That was you on Brexit, non-stop.
Her methods are unorthodox
And a lot of characters that don’t ‘really’ agree with her just say they’ll vote for her as a joke, or to kind of say ‘fuck the system’.
But as the show goes on, as she keeps speaking her mind – and people keep listening – things get more and more serious.
Apart from Vivienne Rook, the main characters of the show are the Lyons family. The oldest is Gran, Muriel, grandmother to most of the characters.
MURIEL: The tsunami is an entirely modern invention.
ROSIE: Love it!
Muriel’s very opinionated, and still quite sharp. Proud and independent, she starts the series living alone at her great house that, like her, is getting on a bit in years.
Stephen Lyons, Muriel’s eldest grandchild – the late mum is sadly out of the picture, and nobody’s in contact with the dad anymore – lives with his wife Celeste, and their two daughters Bethany and Ruby, in London, where the rest of the family lives in Manchester. He’s a financial advisor that works at home, where he avoids conflicts and tries to keep the peace.
CELESTE: Do you want me to take that off you?
STEPHEN: Don’t…it’s alright…
CELESTE: No, it’s not!
The richest of the family, he lives very comfortably, but in the chaotic years the series covers, that means he has the most to lose. He mourns for a world that made more sense, but time marches on.
STEPHEN: It’s like we went too far. We imagined too much. And then…pop! Whatever we had, we punctured it. And now it’s all collapsing.
Celeste Bisme-Lyons, Stephen’s wife, is an accountant and a bit of a snob. When the show starts off, in some ways she’s harder to like than the other characters, a bit more abrasive.
CELESTE: Milk’s not good for you darling; it’s just mucus.
STEPHEN: Don’t have a go at her.
CELESTE: No, I should do it more often!
But with the journey she goes on, and the layers of the character that are peeled back, she becomes arguably the most compelling member of the family.
Bethany is Stephen and Celeste’s eldest daughter, and has an obsession with technology.
BETHANY: Sorry pretty Mummy!
Shyer, quieter, more withdrawn than the rest of her family, Bethany struggles with her identity, but sees more clearly into the future than the rest of her family. The conflict between the realities of the present, and her vision for the future, they fuel a lot of the show’s more science-fiction scenes.
Ruby is Bethany’s younger and more outgoing sister.
RUBY: It’s the worldwide premiere of Guardians 4, so you can’t interrupt, not for anything.
CLYDE: Oh, Chris Pratt’s such a hot daddy, he could have me any day!
Edith Lyons, the second of the four children that make up the main generation of the family, is a great activist, oceans away from the rest of her family when the show starts.
EDITH: Don’t you watch the news? I send you a link every day!
From a wild hippie to a fearless campaigner, her global perspective adds a lot to the show.
Daniel Lyons is the third child of that generation, perhaps a bit more boring on the surface-
DANIEL: I’m just a housing officer – I know, boring!
-but in many ways the main character of the show. He’s friendly, but takes the world very seriously, and gets enraged by the madness and injustice he sees around him. He starts the show in a long-term committed relationship with Ralph-
RALPH: I just had a shit downstairs, and you always tell me off when I run the taps.
DANIEL: Have you got shitty hands!?
-who doesn’t really share his way of viewing the world. He gets on well with the rest of the family, but is a lot sillier than Daniel is. Who isn’t silly is Viktor, a refugee at the camp Daniel works at.
VIKTOR: Well, they need proof of torture, that I was tortured. They demand proof here in the UK, which I understand, but they electrocute because it leaves no marks, so no proof.
The story of this tortured Ukrainian refugee with no real place to legally call home also brings a lot to the show, really connecting with that broader idea to show how a seemingly normal and comfortable society can descend into terror.
Rosie Lyons is the youngest of the four main siblings.
ROSIE: I’m a championship wrestler.
ROSIE: No, mate, I’m a chef manager, I job-share at the big school.
The show starts with her giving birth to her second child, Lincoln. Her first child, Lee, is rarely seen without a VR gadget strapped to his face, but baby Lincoln is a more important part of the show, as Lincoln grows up with every timeskip the show pulls off, with their own interesting story often going on in the background.
Rosie brings her kids up alone, and even with her birth impairment that sees her have to use a wheelchair, she deals with the shifting times of the show in surprising ways, always with bravado.
The last “family member” of sorts is Signor.
CELESTE: Signor, give me the origin of Lincoln as a boy’s first name.
SIGNOR: Lincoln as a boy’s first name is from the Latin meaning “lithe”.
Even a Siri/Alexa-esque little gadget gets a story of its own, of sorts, in the show.
One of the best parts of the show is the music. Composer Murray Gold, most famous for writing DOCTOR WHO’s music for 12 years, sets every timeskip montage of the show, that push into the future every episode covers, to a thrilling track that makes each latest insanity feel all the more dramatic and awe-inspiring.
DANIEL: What’s it gonna be like?
Sometimes the music is less epic, and more soulful, using wordless vocals in a very different way.
But the music excels the most when covering society disintegrating, things falling to pieces, the terrifying moments of change that episodes tend to end on.
All the episodes of the show are written by the one man, Russell T Davies, “RTD” or “Rusty” as he’s sometimes known, or, as he calls himself…
RTD: Russell T here, Russell “the” Davies – ha, funny.
RTD is most famous for bringing Doctor Who back in 2005, running the series with the Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant doctors. In his own words, YEARS AND YEARS is
RTD: A six-hour drama. It’s about family, it’s a family saga, the Lyons of Manchester.
RTD: It starts in 2019, and goes forward 15 years, so you see where we’re heading, you know, history and society seem to be mad at the moment.
RTD’s written stories of regular modern society descending into chaos and fascism before, both in DOCTOR WHO and TORCHWOOD, about how…
RTD: How mad and hot and wired the wold is becoming. How politicised we are, or how fed up with politics we are – which is the same thing, really.
RTD: It’s got a lot to say about the world, but it’s also a family saga. I need to keep saying that. It’s not a great big political diatribe.
RTD’s been noted for how naturalistically he factors in characters of various sexualities and impairments into his stories, and takes it as a kind of happy responsibility to write diversely in that way.
RTD: The world is very diverse, and the world is changing rapidly, and where is it on screen? I still watch television programmes thinking “where are you, where, where’s all the different heights and shapes and sizes and sexes,” so I take that onboard joyously. It’s not my issue, it’s not my politics to do that, it’s my absolute joy.
RTD’s praised widely for how quickly and deeply he can make a character feel utterly real and lived-in, and that skill is on great display in YEARS AND YEARS.
Having seen the whole show, but determined to review it without spoiling it, what’s the verdict?
Well, the cast is fantastic, and the Lyons family really do feel like real, nuanced people. They’re exactly the sort of family it makes sense to tell this story of societal descent into chaos about; they start off feeling utterly insulated by the problems of the world, but reality increasingly catches up with them.
It can’t be overstated how big a deal truly strong character writing and dialogue like that it is; it makes you invest in a show so quickly because the people on the screen just genuinely do feel like real people, with all their positive and negative aspects, all their contradictions and failures and glories.
Celeste in particular is a character that really humanises the sometimes high-concept descent of society over the next fifteen years, as is Viktor, bringing a much more global and world-weary perspective to things.
Some of the characters politics are confused, sometimes in a clearly intentional way – like the way Stephen’s “the whole world is mad except me, one of the last bastions of sanity” vibe rubs up against how he finds his place in society as it changes more and more – that works very well, but sometimes supposed anarchist characters will speak in ways quite incongruent in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s hitting the mark of the script.
That speaks to a broader political confusion in the show, which isn’t that much of a problem until the finale, where a lot of the fantastically-realised complexities of the show get answers that were perhaps inevitable in a conclusion that by its nature had to answer some very, perhaps unanswerable questions, but nonetheless feel reductive in a way that might jar with some viewers.
When characters in earlier episodes give speeches about how things “used to be normal”, but now, in the show’s heightened projection of the present, they’ve “gone insane”, it’s easier to recognise some of the hypocrisy and fallacy at play there – like the cyclical mindset of each generation feeling it’s gone more to the dogs than the last – but come the finale, having to bring some sort of conclusiveness to issues the present is very much grappling with ends up feeling didactic and not nearly as useful as most of the series, which if nothing else, gets one thinking.
Also jarring is some of the show’s approach to social issues. While in a lot of ways RTD excels with his typical naturalistic way of writing inclusively, much of the parallel he draws between the high-concept sci-fi depiction of being transhuman, with the very real identity of being transgender, grate, with the more specific issue of offbase terminology, and the larger issue of equivocating and implying sci-fi robotic implants as some kind of logical next step or natural escalation of being trans.
Often, the show’s projections of future technology are cleverly written in not just feeling high concept, but mundane yet intuitive as well, but this was one area the show definitely faltered in that regard.
Apart from some arguable missteps, including the finale depending on how much a viewer buys into what it’s doing, the show is utterly captivating. It absolutely achieves its aim of showing incrementally how a very modern society relatable to most viewers can steadily descend into something much darker and more twisted.
It absolutely is bought to life by a fantastic cast playing fascinating, nuanced characters, and it absolutely is thought-provoking, arguably beating shows like BLACK MIRROR at their own game, handily.
It doesn’t just take glee in showing how society might degrade, it takes the effort to show the human cost and pain of that. It might push fifteen years forward into the future, but it feels utterly of this time, and is absolutely worth viewer’s time.