With the premiere of the ground-breaking “Queer as Folk” (the British version) in 1999, writer Russell T. Davies changed the television landscape. With the arrival of “Years and Years,” he does it again.
Now showing on HBO, the six-part limited series focuses on the Lyons family of Manchester, England, as Britain is rocked by a period of rapid technological, political and economic changes. The action starts in 2019 and follows the family and the nation for the next 15 years.
The matriarch of the tight-knit Lyons clan is the fierce but occasionally befuddled Muriel Deacon, called Gran (Anne Reid). The eldest grandson is Stephen (Rory Kinnear of “The Imitation Game”), a financial advisor who’s married to Celeste Bisme-Lyons (T’Nia Miller). They have two daughters: Bethany (Lydia West) and Ruby (Jaye Alleyne).
The younger grandson, Daniel, is played by out actor Russell Tovey (HBO’s “Looking” and the London/Broadway revival of “Angels in America”). As the series opens, he’s dating Ralph (Dino Fetscher), but their relationship is threatened when Daniel meets Viktor (Maxim Baldry), a Ukrainian living in the refugee center Daniel manages for the local council.
Eldest granddaughter Edith (Jessica Hynes) is missing in action. She’s a globe-trotting social activist whose communications with the rest of the family is sporadic at best.
Rosie (Ruth Madeley) is the baby of the family. She was born with a congenital spinal condition and uses a wheelchair; she’s racked with guilt because she thinks her father abandoned the family because he couldn’t deal with her disability. She has two young sons and acquires a charming boyfriend named Jonjo Aleef (George Bukhari).
Finally, there’s Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), a maverick politician whose extreme positions (like requiring an IQ test for voters), unstoppable ambition and wily stratagems will change the course of history for the family, the nation and the world.
All these characters are efficiently and effortlessly introduced in the opening scenes of the first episode where the Lyons celebrate the birth of Lincoln and Viv Rook gains national attention by swearing during a live news show. A clever montage quickly moves the story to 2024; the rest of the time shifts are more gradual, generally marked by New Year’s celebrations and Gran’s birthday parties.
Craftily extrapolating from current events, Davies creates a fascinating future that serves as a vibrant backdrop for the compelling family saga.
On the political front, newscasters provide updates on the latest developments; there’s almost always a television or other screen playing. Right wing parties win elections across Europe and impose harsh policies that exacerbate the global refugee crisis. A rogue nation drops a nuclear bomb.
On the economic front, the collapse of the British banking system devastates the family.
On the environmental front, there are casual background references to the terrible impacts of climate change. Gran remembers when there were butterflies and when she could buy chocolate. Other characters mention that the North Pole has melted.
But it’s the changes on the technological front that most fascinate Davies and his characters. He introduces new high-tech gadgets with subtlety. For example, although Stephen worries that things are getting “hotter and faster,” the family is brought closer by the “links” set up by the ubiquitous “Signor,” a descendant of Alexa.
Davies explores the possibilities and perils of new technology most vividly through the character of the socially awkward Bethany. In an early scene, despite her mother’s pleas to remove the mask, she hides behind a real-life 3-D facial filter.
Then, she announces that she’s trans. Her parents embrace the change until she clarifies that she means “transhuman.” She wants to have her consciousness uploaded and dispose of her physical body. Her distraught mother stomps out of the room.
Then, she has dermal skinplants to turn her hand into a telephone; her father wryly notes that hand calls cost twice as much as cell phone calls.
But in the midst of all the emotional chaos and all of the fascinating scientific developments, some rituals remain. Gran still brews a pit of tea to calm her frazzled family.
As fans of “Torchwood” and “Doctor Who” (2005-2010) can attest, Davies is a master world builder. The future he envisions is a logical extension of the world we live in now that still manages to surprise, shock and delight, but the focus always stays on the way the changing world affects the members of the Lyons family.
His writing is sharp and smart. The direction by Simon Cellan Jones and Lisa Mulcahy is excellent, well-paced and cleanly edited.
The acting is superb. The amazing ensemble cast creates palpable bonds between the family members that feel lived in. Emma Thompson is brilliant as the wily Vivienne Rook, a sly warrior who deftly creates a disarming political persona.
Davies’ casting is also pitch perfect and deeply committed to diversity. There are actors of color and actors with disabilities in roles both large and small.
And it’s wonderful to see how openly gay creator/writer Davies seamlessly weaves issues of sexuality into the series in several ways. Most notably, the family has no issues with Daniel being gay, but his relationship with Viktor put them both in mortal danger.
With a phenomenal script and stellar acting, “Years and Years” is a monumental achievement. The gripping family saga is deeply moving and thought-provoking. Queer genius Russell T. Davies has changed the television landscape again.