Review: In ‘Years and Years,’ Things Fall Apart, Fast

Ever feel like there’s too much happening? That the news is out of control? That there’s barely time to process one outrage before another replaces it, leaving just the faint memory and a little bit of scar tissue from the previous Worst Thing to Ever Happen?

“Years and Years” is not the escape for you.

The HBO limited series, from the British writer Russell T Davies, is about a lot of ideas: runaway technology, European nationalism, the failure of liberal democracy. But its overarching idea, driven home by its pell-mell narrative, is, “Man, there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on these days.”

This six-episode limited series, beginning Monday, is half family drama, half speculative fiction. It starts in the present, with the adult children of the Lyons clan of Manchester welcoming a new baby into the family. Then it tears ahead five years into the future, its foot jammed on the accelerator, and shows us what rough beasts are being born elsewhere.

World governments continue to lurch toward right-wing xenophobia. China builds a military installation on an artificial island. War breaks out in Ukraine. A nutty, populist entrepreneur, Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), runs for Parliament. Oh, P.S.: There are no more butterflies!

All this plays out in the context of an ensemble family story — think “This Is Us” or “Six Feet Under” — about the comfortable Lyons siblings, who become, as the world grows more chaotic around them, progressively more uncomfortable.

Daniel (Russell Tovey) becomes entangled in the Ukrainian refugee crisis, which has sent citizens fleeing state-sanctioned homophobia. Edith (Jessica Hynes) risks her life as an antiwar activist. Stephen (Rory Kinnear) and his wife, Celeste (T’Nia Miller), are increasingly alienated from their older daughter Bethany (Lydia West), who is retreating into virtual cyberlife. And Rosie (Ruth Madeley), finds herself drawn to Rook’s eccentric, and vaguely menacing, political movement.

Davies, who’s written both science fiction (“Doctor Who”) and contemporary character drama (“Queer as Folk”), merges the two genres here to a purpose: The Lyonses are the sort of people who were once insulated from global catastrophes. Now the insulation is peeling off a layer at a time. When things fall apart in Asia, in America, at the North Pole, it becomes your problem eventually, wherever you are.

“Years” is very good at amplifying up today’s familiar sense of tumult. Every once in a while, the timeline sprints ahead into the 2020s, in a blur of news clips and references — there’s lab-grown meat! Mike Pence is president! “Toy Story: Resurrection” is in theaters! — that pass at such a dizzying rate that “Years” plays like a trailer for itself.

What it’s less good at, and this is important given the kitchen-table genre Davies has chosen, is making its characters into three-dimensional individuals.

Mostly, they each feel like a representative for a social or political demographic. Stephen, a banker, is the standard-bearer for the moneyed globalist class; Rosie, a single mother, for the masses who want society shaken up; the materfamilias, Muriel (Anne Reid), for a past generation that remembers more stable times; Bethany, for a future generation grasping for hope in a virtual world that they can’t find in the physical one.

Oddly, the show’s broadest and most distant character, Rook, is its most fully realized. That’s partly thanks to Thompson, who gives her a casual authenticity that helps you see how people embrace her authoritarianism as folksy common sense. And her presentation — in the first four episodes, she’s a kind of Max Headroom figure seen through the news media — feels better suited to this fast-motion story.As “Years” shades from a how-we-live-now sketch into a futuristic dystopia, there is a confident inevitability to its momentum. Climate change, financial collapse, political chaos — all these are slowly accumulating worries on the periphery of the characters’ consciousness, until suddenly they’re everywhere and inescapable.

It’s an ambitious, occasionally moving effort, more successful in its zeitgeist-y family narrative than HBO’s “Here and Now,” the ham-handed 2018 attempt to make domestic melodrama out of the Trump era. (From an American perspective, it’s refreshing, in “Years,” to see a series in which our own political upheaval is treated as simply part of the worrisome, distant background noise.)

But Davies’s attempt to depict an era of too much news to process often feels, well, too much to process, like he’s trying to catch a waterfall in a Dixie cup. This may not be his fault, but as viewers, it’s our problem.

This may also be why, lately, TV’s most resonant commentaries on the present have been focused on single stories from the past.

“When They See Us,” Ava DuVernay’s poetic and excruciating story of the railroading and eventual exoneration of the Central Park Five on Netflix, connects to the present only briefly, by referencing the dehumanizing demagogy of the New York businessman Donald Trump in 1989. (As president, he was prompted by the series’s visibility to double down on his condemnation of the five teenagers.) But its autopsy of injustice manages to be both timeless and painfully topical.

HBO’s recent mini-series “Chernobyl” appeared an even less likely candidate for buzzy relevance. But by focusing closely on individual stories amid a nuclear disaster, it hummed with current anxieties, whether about climate disaster or the cascading effects of governments denying objective reality. Jared Harris’s closing statement — “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid” — may be the definitive TV line of 2019, even if it concerns the Soviet Union of 1986.

For all its intelligence, “Years and Years” instead conveys how crazy life is today by simply having characters tell us how crazy life is today, as when Edith laments, “The world keeps getting hotter and faster and madder, and we don’t pause, we don’t think, we don’t learn, we just keep racing on to the next disaster.”

She’s right, of course. But that’s why we count on stories to do the pausing and learning for us.

Years and Years

Premiering on HBO on Monday

James Poniewozik is the chief television critic. He writes reviews and essays with an emphasis on television as it reflects a changing culture and politics. He previously spent 16 years with Time magazine as a columnist and critic. @poniewozik

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