Years And Years

The immovable object of satire crashes into the unstoppable force of Russel T Davies

What’s The Show? Years And Years

What’s It All About, JG? In one way it’s about something absolutely unique in contemporary culture – it’s not a bleak dystopian future! In another way, though, it’s also exactly that. Years and Years follows the fortunes of a family in the near future as they struggle to deal with what is essentially a worst-case-scenario extrapolation of the existing political situation. So you know how it goes – Trump launches a nuclear missile, racism runs rampant under the auspices of “immigration control”, Russia’s up to it’s old tricks, that sort of thing. Mixed in with this are some vaguely Black Mirror-esque ruminations on the place of technology in society, an attempt to analyse the conflicting feelings people have within families, the collapse of the banking system… Whatever else one can say about Years and Years it’s tough to deny that there isn’t plenty of stuff going on.

Why Did You Give It A Go? Well most obviously, because it’s by Russel T Davies, and while Davies’s series’ have been up and down he is usually at the least an interesting writer, even if not everything ends up being a stone-cold classic. Also, there’s the whole Doctor Who thing – there was simply no way I was going to not watch something by the person who brought it back with such a bang to the 21st century. And there’s a really interesting cast as well – it’s strikingly unusual to see Emma Thompson playing what amounts to a female version of Nigel Farage so that’s intriguing, and many  members of the ensemble have done time on Doctor Who as well – Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes and Anne Reid (in both Original and 21st Century flavours!) are the obvious stand-outs there, but the whole cast are a who’s-who (heh) of good acting.

Is It Any Good? Well… it starts strong I guess? The first episode makes the show seem like a rather interesting proposition. Other than the nuclear strike right at the end of the episode (a classic piece of Doctor Who cliffhanger-ing if ever I saw it) there’s not actually a lot of plot. But that’s to the episode’s benefit, because it means we spend time with the characters and actually get to know them and their situation before everything kicks off.  Emma Thompson, characteristically great playing a vile character, is the headline news here as Vivienne Rook, but she’s mostly off to one side in the first episode and largely glimpsed through TV news reports (another typical Davies way of getting the exposition out of the way with a minimum of fuss) so the focus is on our central family. And in the first episode it’s really possible to care about them and the dynamic between the Lyons family. The second episode blows its load spectacularly though.

Remember all those bits in Davies’s Doctor Who stories where he’d throw in the odd stinging line of satire, like the Doctor criticising Donna for asking why humans need slaves in the future but not wondering where her clothes came from (“Planet of The Ood”)? Or having aliens that could “deploy weapons of mass destruction in 45 seconds” (“World War Three”)? Well this show is basically those few lines, but a series. Nobody, but nobody, thinks those are the highlights of the Davies era, and thus is proves to be here. Once the show actually gets underway it all becomes a tedious runaround of hackneyed, inelegant, clumsy social and political “satire” that just doesn’t work.

Everything about the series from the second episode onwards feels incredibly cynical and calculated, taking the worst of what’s around us now and pandering to the audience by presenting as entertainment so we can all go, “ohh isn’t that terrible” then move on with our lives. It’s kind of insulting in fact – a deeply misanthropic show that has nothing to actually say and no way of actually articulating any criticism. By taking the worst examples of everything around us and feeding it back to use as “entertainment” it feel incredibly exploitative as well, and by laying out such a breathlessly bleak yet indulged and revelled in future it feels more like it’s providing a roadmap rather than a warning. It is by some distance the worst thing I’ve ever seen that Russell T Davies has written – and I’ve seen “Love And Monsters”. Also – if trivial – that title sequence? Totally nicked from TimelessSee for yourself.

How Many Episodes Did You Watch? The first two in their entirety and about fifteen minutes of the third before I simply gave up. This is an unpleasant show to watch, and not in the way the show seems to think its unpleasant. Years And Years wants to posit itself it as a “if we’re not careful this is what we’ll get” but instead lands up with “it’s fun wallowing in all this nastiness”. It’s prurient, taking obvious pleasure from Rook’s just-saying-it-like-it-is attitude while also superficially looking like it’s condemning it, and throwing in the odd oppressed-gay-people or technology-changes-us sub-plot isn’t a big enough fig leaf to cover that up.

Would You Recommend It? No, and I regret having to say that, because I mostly like Davies’s writing and he’s been on something of a hot streak. Cucumber, his gay drama for middle-aged people rather than the grindingly awful younger cast of Queer As Folk, was terrific. It was a well-written, well-paced character piece that was a million times better than Queen As Folk itself in fact (not hard – Queer As Folk is mostly terrible). And A Very English Scandal was absolutely great as well – actually, probably the best thing he’s done – and gave Hugh Grant arguably his best performance as well. So with both of those behind him anticipation for Years and Years was understandably high, which makes its failure that much more disappointing.

With a cast this gifted it’s not, of course, a complete disaster. Emma Thompson is marvellous, Russell Tovey turns up to do That Role Russell Tovey Does but he does it as well as he’s done it anywhere. There’s a sense that the cast are really giving it 110% in service of a script that isn’t worthy of them. Well, maybe that’s a little harsh. Some of the family drama stuff works quite well – like the barely-repressed hostility between Anne Reid’s Muriel Deacon and her daughter-in-law Celeste, played (excellently) by T’Nia Miller. Those moments – if relatively familiar to anyone who knows Davies’s works – land well and it’s impossible to shake the feeling that if the show was just set now, and mostly about those family dynamics it would be substantially better. But no, instead we have to get dragged in to half-thought-out, lackluster social and political satire that’s neither got anything to say that you haven’t heard a thousand times before nor any actual alternative beyond saying “this is bad” (and then enjoying that anyway). Maybe somewhere in episode five or something an alternative might be suggested but if you’ve already lost your audience by that point then frankly who cares?

Scores On The Doors? 4/10, mostly for the cast.

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