Years and Years (SBS) – streaming review

This British series about an extended family in Manchester offers a refreshingly different take on the family drama genre. For one thing, it’s created, written and executive-produced by Russell T Davies (Doctor Who). Director is Simon Cellan Jones (Boardwalk Empire).

The title is very literal, with each episode jumping forward in time over 15 years in total, and showing us often very worrying trends that we’re seeing already in the world coming to even more disturbing fruition. For instance, as the years go by in the first couple of episodes, we learn that not only does Trump get re-elected, the President following him is Mike Pence (but with Trump apparently still pulling the strings).

Fast-forward montages accompanied by frenetic music as the years tick by actually cause anxiety in the viewer, especially with the first episode concluding with a cataclysmic world event and one of the main characters calling out, panicked, amid the chaos, “What happens now?!” You find yourself anxiously asking the same question, which pretty much guarantees you’ll go straight to episode 2.

With Brexit being ubiquitous in anything British at the moment, Years and Years takes up many of the issues which brought the vote on, including an influx of refugees, this time from Ukraine since Russia occupied it.

Of course there’s a populist politician. Vivienne Rook, played by the dependable Emma Thompson, makes a big splash early on when, before her political career starts, she appears on a TV panel show. When asked what her views on the Israel and Palestine situation are, she says matter-of-factly, “I don’t give a f**k.” Of course, her political future is guaranteed as someone who’s not afraid to speak the truth, and she even makes the most of her infamy by starting her own party – The Four Star Party (because reports of the word she said were written in newspapers as ****).

And then there’s the Lyons family, most of whom think Vivienne is a monster and lament that she’ll no doubt be voted in by an electorate seemingly too stupid to understand nuanced policies.

Head of the family is Gran, played by TV stalwart Anne Reid (Last Tango in Halifax). In this brave new world, she has to deal with asking “Signor” – the Siri/Alexa information hub in people’s homes – what’s going on half the time. We know that her grandchildren’s mother is dead and that Dad is away somewhere. The siblings are Stephen, Rosie, Daniel and Edith.

Stephen (Rory Kinnear) and wife Celeste (T’Nia Miller) are dealing with their teenage daughter, Bethany (Lydia West), wanting to transition – not from female to male or anything so pedestrian. She declares herself ‘transhuman’ and wants to become a fully digital being. Watching her plan come disturbingly closer to reality is very unsettling, which is part of what makes the series one of the more alarming shows on TV. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s just a bit too easy to imagine that it could happen.

Daniel (Russell Tovey), who works housing refugees, gets romantically involved with Ukrainian refugee, Viktor (Maxim Baldry), while sister Edith (Jessica Hynes), an activist and campaigner, returns home from trying to save the world – a passion she puts above her own safety. They’re a colourful bunch and three-dimensional enough to keep you interested in how their family and the world they live in will go as time moves inexorably forward.

Episode 2 starts six months after the world-changing event and, as if often the case even though it seemed like the world was ending at the time, everyone has moved on. There are radical new medical breakthroughs, including being able to “fix” a baby’s spina bifida – something that wheelchair-bound Rosie (Ruth Madeley) doesn’t necessarily think is a good thing. Does that mean people think she should be “fixed” too?

Episode 3 sees the country heading for an election in 2026, and with Vivienne Rook as a candidate, things will no doubt heat up in the remaining four episodes. It’ll be interesting to see where things go and if a second season is on the cards. Flash forward to the middle of the century? That might be just a little too terrifying!

Vicki Englund

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