John Seven | Viewer's Discretion: 'Years and Years' more than just family dramedy

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'YEARS AND YEARS' (HBO)

Back in the 1980s, it was a nuclear war that got the dire television warnings that tapped into the public's apocalyptic fear in the form of the amazing British TV movie, "Threads," and its American counterpart, the melodramatic but effective "The Day After." "Years and Years" falls in that tradition, but nuclear war is just a footnote now, an indication of how far we've come. Now the causes of the end of the world and the terrifying events that lead to it are a multi-faceted pile-on, thanks to authoritarian governments and climate catastrophe. As the creator of the original British version of "Queer as Folk" and the man who ushered in the new era of "Doctor Who," as well as the writer of the brilliant mini-series, "A Very British Scandal," series creator Russell T. Davies adds a bit of cheekiness to our demise, but doesn't erase the tension within our cheerful moments.

Following the Lyons family, "Years and Years" takes you through a time of subtle, but quick change in society that's part "Black Mirror," with its technological and dystopian themes. At the forefront of the family are Daniel (Russell Tovey), a gay housing officer who finds himself wrapped up in the plight of a detained Ukrainian refugee, Victor (Maxim Baldry); Edith (Jessica Hynes), his sister, a political activist often in dangerous situations; Stephen (Rory Kinnear), their brother, a straight-laced financial adviser who watches his world crash down around him; Rosie (Ruth Madeley), their youngest sister with spina bifida who hasn't yet figured out what to do with her life; Muriel (Anne Reid), their grandmother and center of the family; and Celeste (T'Nia Miller), Stephen's wife, who often feels out of place within their family.

As the family tries to live their lives, a celebrity politician, Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), becomes a fixture on the family television as she breaks down polite norms by lashing out at other politicians with profanity-laden plain sense talk that appeals to the angry and disillusioned ordinary voters of England.

You'd expect a show about politics to put the politics front and center, but that's the aspect of "Years and Years" that not only differentiates it from so many other politically focused shows, but also points to the reason for its brilliance. Politics sits in the background, focused on here and thereby the characters, reacted to promptly, and then they move on to deal with their lives. Politics is something you take care of in the ballot box. You don't let it overtake your life.

But it is overtaking your life. Vivienne Rook may not be sitting at your dinner table, forcing you to confront her, but the sway of the country, and even the world, creates a local and even personal effect on your life that you spend a lot of time having to solve and so it distracts you from focusing on the source of your woes. As with reality, "Years and Years" depicts people who vote against their own interests, and the interests of their friends, families, neighbors, co-workers — and sometimes don't have the time, attention or even resources to look beyond the surface of who they are voting for.

Add to that the simple human drive to just live your life, be with your loved ones, not suffer all the time. "Years and Years" spends a lot of time appearing like a standard family dramedy, with all the cute, funny parts and personal dramas that you'd expect from such a show because life does go on despite catastrophes. But, as I said, there's something sinister lurking in the background. And bonus points for the series' sharp portrayal of the way former Soviet block countries now turning back to authoritarianism have used homophobia as a strategic tool to fuel their totalitarian goals.

In this unexpected apocalyptic period in modern history, it's surprising to find a series that not only speaks so directly to the experience of being here but manages to keep its head raised in some semblance of positivity. Its final stance is one of rousing defiance, and perhaps that's what we most need right now, though that's sometimes what separates fiction from reality. Even still, with its fast-paced drama, its characters worth investing in and excellent performances, and its right-on analysis and satire, Years and Years is, more than any other, a series made to binge-watched during a pandemic quarantine, and that must make it somewhat special.

John Seven is a writer in North Adams who has never been satisfied by movies and television that are easy to come by. He likes to do some digging. Find him online at johnseven.me.

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