The future ain’t what it used to be—and TV creators have noticed. Faced with the quadruple threat of right-wing populism, climate change, Putin and the increasingly dark realities of cyberspace, their visions of the world to come have begun to look less like The Jetsons and more like the End Times. Tech dystopias abound, from Westworld to Black Mirror, along with such angry-Earth fare as the Brazilian Netflix hit 3%. The Expanse, a work of sci-fi political commentary, concerns a cold war between Earth and Mars. Even as the quality of its storytelling keeps slipping, The Handmaid’s Tale grows more prophetic with each new assault on abortion rights.
Years and Years, a six-part miniseries that recently ended its run on BBC One and will premiere on HBO June 24, is the least extreme but among the hardest to watch of these shows—probably because its vision of the near future is so tied to our specific present. Each episode is a snapshot of a year in the life of the big, diverse, multigenerational Lyons family (think This Is Us’ Pearson clan but British, and with a more robust sense of humor), beginning in 2024. The eldest of four adult siblings, Stephen (Rory Kinnear) is a successful financial advisor in an increasingly unstable global marketplace. His sister Edith (Jessica Hynes) travels the world doing risky activist work. Their little brother Daniel (Russell Tovey) is a housing officer; after Russia annexes Ukraine, a gay refugee (Maxim Baldry) from the occupied nation shows up at camp and catches his eye. The baby of the family, single mom Rosie (Ruth Madeley) uses a wheelchair due to spina bifida. With their parents out of the picture, the Lyons’ nonagenarian grandmother (a wonderfully warm Anne Reid) remains the matriarch, playing host to regular family gatherings.
Their privileged lives are destabilized by a series of geopolitical events straight out of Remainers’ nightmares: immigration chaos, economic free fall, a second term for Donald Trump, escalating tensions between China and the U.S. In Britain, the big news is Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson, in a terrifyingly sharp performance), a blunt businesswoman turned politician who combines elements of Trump, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage. A politically heterogenous clan, the Lyons each see something different in her nationalist rhetoric. Some are electrified by Rook; others are enraged.
Believable as a family and likable as individuals, the Lyons ground the show’s unwieldy themes in real lives viewers can actually care about. (That’s more than I can say for HBO’s last impassioned Trump-era family drama, 2018’s unwatchably self-important Here and Now). In addition to the superb cast, Years and Years gets a lot of mileage out of the clever, unexpectedly subtle dialogue written entirely by creator Russell T. Davies—a stalwart of British TV who’s responsible for Queer as Folk, the 21st-century Doctor Who reboot and last year’s A Very English Scandal.
But the show too often feels like an exercise in liberal masochism. Davies’ dark vision of the near future aligns so neatly with worst-case scenarios that have been keeping left-of-center folks on both sides of the Atlantic awake at night since 2016 that plot twists rarely surprise. Sentiments that already register as obvious today are treated as revelations in the mid-2020s (“God, the world got complicated,” someone muses). Fiery speeches about the sad state of human society come across as a politicized form of fan service. The focus on a relatively well-off family pushes less fortunate characters to the margins.
The biggest misfire is a subplot that follows Stephen and his wife Celeste’s (T’Nia Miller) teenage daughter Bethany (Lydia West), who wears a device that projects emoji-like digital masks that resemble Snapchat filters over her face. In a family meeting where they expect her to come out to them as transgender, she shocks them by announcing she’s transhuman—that is, she identifies as a disembodied intelligence and longs to be free of her corporeal prison. And she’s willing to take dangerous steps to realize that dream. It’s a situation straight out of Black Mirror, except that the implication that tech-enabled transhumanism is the logical next step after transgender identity (which has actually existed in some form for thousands of years) carries some pretty transphobic connotations, whether that was Davies’ intention or not.
Speculative fictions can be hard to construct. It takes great attention to detail—and, in visual media, lots of money—to implant ambitious themes in a fully realized, internally consistent alternate world. Yet Years and Years has the opposite problem. Its flaw lies not in the execution of its futuristic family drama but in the banal and occasionally pernicious ideas that form its foundation.