Years And Years episode 1 review: an exuberant but bleak family saga

Russell T Davies’ energetic new drama holds a mirror up to modern times and gets off to an audacious start. Spoilers...

This review contains spoilers. 

Chutzpah. Gutsiness. Swagger. Call it what you like, Russell T Davies scripts have it. They start at a sprint and end big. This one ends bigger than most – with drums and flames and panic and the end of the world. With a nuclear missile, a stupendous shag, teacups and saucers laid out on a tray and a voice shouting “What happens now?!”

What happens now? We’re going to be told a story about the state we’re in. It might, as Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s character says in this episode, help us to make sense of the world. Or it might just sum up the screaming horror of it all and signal, as does this hour, that love is our only escape. Either way it’ll be worth hearing. 

Episode one starts in a familiar place – on the sofa, incensed by Question Time – and ends in the thankfully unfamiliar one of a nuclear war between global superpowers. In between, it introduces the Lyons family with easy efficiency, pirouetting between households to demonstrate their connections.

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There’s great-grandmother Muriel (Anne Reid) and her grandchildren Stephen, Daniel and Rosie. (Rory Kinnear, Russell Tovey and Ruth Madeley). There’s also another – Jessica Hynes’ Edith, but she’s off saving the world and only Skypes in when it looks as though it’s coming to an end. Their mum has passed away, their dad is persona non grata and there’s a bubbling extra layer of spouses and kids. 

The Lyons are us, a ‘normal’ family through which to view the unfurling madness. They number and vary sufficiently to provide what feels like a representative slice of 2019. (Anyone unhappy about the Lyons’ gratifyingly robust diversity, by the way, should have a quiet word with themselves as to why.)

The point-of-view character should depend on your own point of view, but really it’s Daniel, played by Russell Tovey. He’s the one who instantly identifies Emma Thompson’s Viv Rook as a monster rather than an entertaining straight-talker, and he summarises popular despair in two speeches. One laments how intellectual progress seems to be in retreat, and the other, given with his new-born nephew in his arms, delivers the drama’s premise.  

“Don’t know if I could, have a kid in a world like this,” says Daniel, before listing the woes of the modern world (“the banks, the companies, the brands the corporations, Isis, America … fake news and false facts”) If it’s this bad now, he tells his new-born nephew, what’s it going to be like for you in 30, 10, five years?” 

Like a magical incantation, his words spin the Lyons five years into the future where life has changed, but not greatly. There’s new tech. The Queen’s dead. Ukrainian refugees are seeking asylum from a state purge. Donald Trump is finishing out his second term. Coffee’s 12 quid a cup in London and you have to be means-tested if you want to go to Kensington. There’s also a populist politician on the rise. 

Emma Thompson’s Viv Rook is a composite of every tell-it-like-it-is chancer shinnying their way into power via cynical appeals. Ten years ago in Davies’ writing, Rook would have been an alien disguised as a person, a life-force-sucking entity wearing a human skin. In this, she’s something far scarier. (Doctor Who fans will have heard the name before, by the way, as belonging to a reporter investigating another of Davies’ suspect politicians, Harold Saxon in The Sound Of Drums.) She’s unsettlingly well observed and the few glimpses we see of Thompson energise the whole episode. 

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Ruth Madeley does the same as Rosie, whose robot sex date is one of the hour’s light strands, helped along by Murray Gold’s sprightly score. There’s comedy too, if darker tinged, in Stephen and Celeste’s unpreparedness for daughter Bethany’s coming-out scene. 

The laughs are there, but all are underscored by bleakness, especially in Bethany’s disconcerting real-life ‘filter’. While Daniel and Viktor’s love story adds romance and heat, it’s told against a hopeless backdrop of intolerance. Viktor’s torturers were his compatriots, “people who’d been waiting a long time” to purge Ukraine’s gay community. Edith’s human rights battles and Ralph’s sense-defying “I’m not saying I’m absolutely right, which means you can’t say I’m absolutely wrong” approach are queasy reminders of modern ills.

It’s all a queasy reminder of how, in a hop, skip and a Facebook click, the world is sleepwalking its way to the apocalypse. Forget five years, in fiction ‘the future’ has always meant ‘now’.  

Read Russell T Davies, the director and cast talking Years & Years here.