In the song “The Future,” Prince sang about the systematic overthrow of the underclass and, at one point, wearily crooned, “I’ve seen the future…and boy it’s rough.” While that song was written for the 1989 Batman movie directed by Tim Burton, it could be used in the BBC TV show Years and Years that recently concluded on HBO in the U.S. The story starts in 2019 and follows the Lyons family as they live through 15 years of technological, political, environmental, and familial change. The show has been compared to Black Mirror for its dystopian view of technology, but those comparisons only go so far. Really, this is a story that projects current trends in the present and games them out to see how this family (who represent the UK) reacts to those changes.
The future is pretty bleak for the UK (and the world) in Years and Years. The starting point is Brexit, the reelection of Donald Trump, and the rise of a Nigel Farage/Trumpian character named Vivienne Rook. She’s a TV personality who has her own network, knows how to play to the camera, says shocking things, and commands the spotlight with ease. Her solutions to problems plaguing the UK and the world is to say things like “I don’t give a fu*k” on national TV. This endears her to those who want to chuck a middle finger at the establishment, and creates all sorts of anxieties among those who disagree with her. We see this play out on a family level in the first episode when Rook utters her (in)famous line, and various members of the Lyons family either love it or hate it. Technology also looms large, but it’s treated more like a utility than a shiny new thing — except when it comes to Stephen and Celeste’s daughter, Bethany.
Bethany has difficulty relating to the world as a teenager, and in the first episode can only respond to her parents through holographic emoji facemasks. Her parents are trying to be understanding, but private annoyance papers over what they know is a symptom that something more troubling is going on with her. When they check her web search history, they find that she’s interested in being “trans.” They assume that it means she’s transexual, but no. Bethany is enamoured with technology to the point that she wants to transcend the limitations of her body and become pure data. This desire leads Bethany down some dangerous roads at times during the series. As you may have guessed, most members of the Lyons family get the privilege of experiencing and adapting to these changes in the landscape, but the narrative device doesn’t always work so well. However, when it does, the show can really hit home.
As it is in the present, it seems the pace of change becomes more rapid every year. Things we used to think were marginal, become mainstream. Political trends that look radical and antithetical to liberal democracy become normalized through showmanship and appeals to whims of populism. Bank failures, climate crisis, a nuclear missile, banning of a free press, and other horrors happen in Years and Years don’t seem out of step with the way the winds are blowing these days. And that’s the point show creator Russell T. Davies is trying to make. Just as there were social and political dislocations at the beginning of the 20th century led to the rise of fascism and authoritarian communist regimes, Davies is making a similar (but not the same) argument for the 21st century. Impersonal forces that seems out of our control aren’t as unstoppable as we like to think. Indeed, it’s the family matriarch/grandmother Muriel who make that point in the last episode with a long winded and preachy speech. It’s not the most logically elegant speech, but it does highlight how ordinary people have the power to shape the world in which they live. So, in a way, there is an undercurrent of optimism in Years and Years, but it’s tempered with a sense of responsibility and civic engagement — lest we be tricked into voting for people and parities that want to destroy what was fought for by those who came before us. Or as Edith Lyons (one of the four main siblings) says toward the end of the series: “Get rid of one monster, means the next one is waking up inside its cave.” But these monsters aren’t always the goose stepping “off to the Gulag” variety. Rather, it’s more like clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. People are attracted to charisma, and charismatic personalities have the potential to wield that power in dangerous and deadly ways. You don’t have to read the sociological writings of Max Weber to understand the power of the charismatic personality. Just turn on your television, look at influencers on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter trolls, and Facebook stars. They capture attention through their minor and major celebrity status; a status we reinforce every time we like, share, view, or comment on what they do. Followers = power. The more followers, viewers, readers, and friends one has, the more powerful a charismatic leader becomes — or so they think. Populism, the mob, democracy, or followers are a tricky thing. Their loyalties can sometimes shift on a dime, and to hold on to that power, a charismatic leader has to keep playing to their desires. Aspirations are one thing, but hate is more powerful. In Years and Years, Davies does hold up a black mirror of sorts to show us how easily we can get sucked into the vortex of celebrity and then grant enormous powers to those charismatic individuals who sometimes have a nefarious agenda.
Years and Years is best watched in the early afternoon (i.e., well before bedtime). The reason is that each episode has many nail biting moments that sometimes feel authentic, and sometimes feel manipulative with a blaring soundtrack in the background. Davies is not being subtle about what he sees as disturbing trends in society, and he makes his point with a hammer more often than not. Some coincidences in the story seem far fetched at times, but it all serves his bigger purpose: slapping us out of whatever trance we’re in to understand the social and political values we say we hold dear are close their own extinction event.
Years and Years is available to stream on HBO.