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Review: HBO's 'Years and Years' finds entertaining family drama in the dystopian near-future

Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Russell T Davies, who in 2005 rescued "Doctor Who" from suspended animation and who last year wrote the delicious fact-based miniseries "A Very English Scandal," has a new limited series, "Years and Years," which was to premiere Monday on HBO. Following a Manchester family for 15 years, from 2019 into a plausible dystopian near-future, it is something of a long, raw scream in the face of current events, even as it offers smart, superior entertainment -- a marshmallow toasted over a burning world.

Meet the Lyons. Stephen (Rory Kinnear), a successful financial adviser, lives in London with his accountant wife, Celeste (T'Nia Miller), and their daughters Bethany (Lydia West), who is having identity issues of a new sort, and Ruby (Jade Alleyne), who is the least distressed person in the entire series. Younger brother Daniel (Russell Tovey) is a housing official; he has a husband, Ralph (Dino Fetscher), a big lug with a distressing weakness for conspiracy theories. Maybe something will happen with Viktor (Maxim Baldry), the handsome Ukrainian asylum seeker Dan meets in the course of his job.

Elder sister Edith (Jessica Hynes) is a sort of globe-trotting citizen-journalist guerrilla activist who has not been home in many years; cheery and impulsive younger sister Rosie (Ruth Madeley), a single mother of two -- the second arrives as the series begins -- uses a wheelchair because of a birth defect. Above them all is grandmother Muriel (Ann Reid), who lives in a large tumbledown manse where the family will gather intermittently across the years. At least once they will march around a fire to Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping."

Meanwhile, in the public sphere, Vivian Rook (Emma Thompson), whose eyes in some shots resemble the black eyes of an alien, is becoming politically prominent thanks to showmanship, outsider status and a capacity for impolitic "straight talk" (though what she stands for exactly is impossible to say). Sound familiar?

Davies is 56, and "Years and Years" is clearly the work of someone who has been around long enough to know what's being lost, who has seen those darn kids texting on his lawn, leaving their scooters everywhere -- regarding them not with anger but sad compassion. ("We were lucky for a bit, born in the '80s," says Stephen. "We had, like, for the first 30 years of our lives, we had a nice time ... Turns out, we were born in a pause.")

"Years and Years" grows out of Brexit and Trump, global warming, populist nationalism, resurgent conservatism, the soullessness of technology, the rise of robots, the fragility of the democratic dream, the frailty of the banking system, the cruelty of deportation. If none of that sounds like trouble to you, you are liable to find large tracts of "Years and Years" to be mere complaining -- and you would be wrong.

Even were that the case, you might find the personal business worth hanging in for. Indeed, Davies is good with the political analogizing, but he is really excellent with people. He ends his opening episode with a Completely Awful Thing that, far from changing everything forever, is quickly forgotten, as people go on with their lives. Though the series regularly interrupts the domestic action with bad-news bulletins from the wider world, some of which will have a direct effect on their lives, our sibling heroes are driven by the usual emotions and motivations -- love and jealousy, insecurity and infidelity. Kids lie to their parents, in-laws don't always get along, but family shows up for family, often enough.

Human beings are distractible and adaptable. They get married in war zones. They have kids while the ice caps melt. Someone will have ordered a pizza an hour before the world ends. Davies regards our self-protective, self-destructive capacity for redefinition -- denial indistinguishable from optimism -- with dismay, wonder and love, much as did his version of the extraterrestrial time-and-space-traveling Doctor. Indeed, we are not far from his "Doctor Who" here, a sci-fi story with political underpinnings, an interest in what it means to be (and no longer be) human and a dark thread of humor.

 

Riots and coups and collapses aside, the future here is well imagined and often funny. Along with the usual jokes about how much things cost in the future, there are things like a wearable Snapchat filter that turns your face into a pup-py or whatever (this seems like something someone will be off to invent after seeing it here) and a sub-dermal implant that turns a hand into a phone (you make the "talking on the phone" gesture to use it). In the future, according to Davies, "Toy Story: Resurrection" is in the theaters, "you can only enter Kensington if you're means tested" and glucose intolerance is no longer a thing, because "what we thought was glucose intol-erance turns out to be fructose intolerance."

On rare occasions, the story can seem a little pat, a little too carefully arranged to make a point, and Murray Gold's score sometimes pounds in a little disconcertingly, like Wagner filtered through ABBA. But overall, "Years and Years" is organic and lifelike. The Lyons are believably a family, easy to care about and worry over. Davies has a talent for writing memorable speech -- even speeches -- that sounds at once rhythmically elegant, rhetorically eloquent and completely natural.

"The world keeps getting hotter and faster and madder," Edith says, for example, "and we don't pause, we don't think, we don't learn, we just keep racing to the next disaster." Have fun!

(c)2019 Los Angeles Times

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