The 50 best TV shows of 2019: No 4 Years and Years – The Guardian

In the first episode of Years and Years, a family shindig is interrupted by the whine of air-raid sirens and the news that Donald Trump has fired a nuclear missile at the Chinese a moment of hysteria-inducing horror that doubles as the shows starter pistol. Thats right: impending Armageddon is merely an aperitif when it comes to the devastation the Lyons family faces in Russell T Daviess breathtakingly ambitious dystopian drama. By the time the series ends in 2034, the UK has experienced 80 consecutive days of rainfall, while dirty bombs have made thousands homeless, a fascistic politician in the light-entertainer mould has risen to power and the government has set up a series of secretive concentration camps. Between them, the Lyons have lost their wealth, their health, their freedom and, in some cases, their lives.

The plot of Years and Years felt like the news ticker tape of nightmares brought to life, but it was so much more than a parade of atrocities. Daviess great trick was to meld the wild catastrophising of shows such as Black Mirror with the daily trials of a Mancunian every-family you could really get behind. The result resembled a mashup of soap and sci-fi: Corrie transposed on to a backdrop of staggering political and environmental ruin.

Years and Years dramatised the tipping point at which the news becomes our lives

Opening on the actual date of broadcast, 14 May 2019, Years and Years followed the personal and increasingly political struggles of the Lyons clan: 92-year-old Muriel, her grandchildren Rosie, Stephen, Daniel and Edith, plus their partners and kids. But the Lyons werent just a family they were society under a single surname. They were gay, straight, lesbian, trans, white, black, Asian, disabled and elderly. They were lone parents trying to make ends meet, moneyed middle-class professionals, refugees, never-ending gap year nomads and wealthy retirees rattling around cavernous suburban piles. It wasnt a realistic setup Davies, who has called himself a great believer in quotas, says he was driven by a desire to be representative but it allowed its creator to flesh out a cross-section of society, and create a 3D diagram of varying degrees of privilege.

At its heart, Years and Years was not a show simply about how bad the news could get. It dramatised the tipping point at which the news becomes our lives, and worked at predicting the pain that is largely still to invade our cushy western existences. Characters fell with a shocking abruptness (Daniels descent from a plush flat to the bottom of the freezing sea) or via a piecemeal disintegration (Stephens banking-glitch-prompted slide into the gig economy) that felt frighteningly convincing.

This was realism fit for a world that no longer feels particularly real. That it felt so frighteningly convincing can be credited to its stellar cast, which included Rory Kinnear, Jessica Hynes and Emma Thompson. But it was also down to the fact that many of its atrocious events the ascent of populist leaders, the flooding, the economic crashes, the extinctions have already taken place. Davies, best known for his showrunner stint on the Doctor Who revival, first conceived of Years and Years two decades ago, and began writing after Trumps election victory in 2016. Nobody could blame him for managing to stay only a few steps ahead of the worlds increasingly distorted curve.

The shows embrace of technology is one way that Davies managed to imagine a chilling future. In the first episode, Stephens teenage daughter, Bethany, announces she is transhuman. Initially played for laughs, the idea steadily gains credence until it is revealed to underpin the entire show in a spine-tingling finale that grapples with ideas about what it means to be a human being. In fact, that uncommon optimism about technology runs through the structure of the series. The constant communication made possible by smartphones has long been the scourge of screenwriters its hard to maintain peril when salvation is only a WhatsApp message away but Davies makes it a dramatic asset, using multi-person voice-and-video calls to drive the plot.

There are superficial reasons to admire Years and Years, and there are more profound ones. The show humanises the bad news cycle one that sees the shocking morph into the status quo on a daily basis. Davies attempts to counteract the apathy that can grow out of relentless dismay. He does this not through shock value, but by creating rounded characters that draw empathy, outrage and horror from our increasingly hardened hearts. By no means an easy task, but an indisputably noble one.

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The 50 best TV shows of 2019: No 4 Years and Years - The Guardian

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