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'Years and Years' review: Compelling saga of a dystopian, dysfunctional family

Emma Thompson, right, in HBO's "Years and Years."

Emma Thompson, right, in HBO's "Years and Years."  Credit: HBO/Robert Ludovic

THE MINISERIES “Years and Years”

WHEN | WHERE 9 p.m. Mondays, HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT During a live TV debate, member of parliament candidate Viv Rook (Emma Thompson) is asked what she thinks of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. She says she doesn't give a darn about it — but uses a considerably stronger word than darn. This expletive gives her sudden notoriety and fame. Meanwhile, members of the Manchester-based Lyons family witness this. Some see this vulgar display as ominous, others a breath of fresh air.

They're an interesting family. Stephen (Rory Kinnear) is a financial adviser in London and his wife, Celeste (T'Nia Miller), is an accountant. Their eldest daughter, Bethany (Lydia West), reveals to them that she is "trans" for "transhuman," meaning she wants to have her brain up-loaded to the cloud. Stephen's brother, Daniel (Russell Tovey), falls in love with Viktor Goraya (Maxim Baldry), a Ukranian refugee who faces extradition. Sister Rosie (Ruth Madeley) is bound to a wheelchair (she has spina bifida) and also has two young children. They are all close to grandma Muriel (Anne Reid), a difficult matriarch. Finally, there is sister Edith (Jessica Hynes): An activist, she witnessed the nuking of an island off China in the first episode last Monday.

"Years and Years" follows their lives over a 15-year period in the future. This six-parter, which launched June 24, was written and created by prolific English TV writer Russell T Davies ("Doctor Who," "Queer as Folk").
MY SAY Because America can sometimes seem so discombobulated, it's easy to forget just how discombobulated the rest of the world must feel, too. Take Britain, or the fast-forward Britain of "Years and Years" as an example: 

In the near future here, butterflies have disappeared, lonely people have sex with robots and doctors have changed their minds about gluten intolerance (it was really fructose intolerance all along). Meanwhile, a halfwit candidate calls her new political party the Four Star party — for the four asterisks news organizations had to use in place of her infamous, career-defining outburst. She was formerly the founder of a think tank. 

At the end of the first episode, a manmade island was nuked off the coast of China by outgoing President Donald Trump. Can it get any worse? It can. It will. It must.    

"It's like we went too far and imagined too much and went to the edge of the solar system," says Stephen Lyons, "and then pop, whatever we had we punctured, and now it's all collapsing."

The he adds: "Well, nothing we can do." 

That "nothing we can do" — that sense of defeat, resignation and futility — is the "nothing" that lies at the heart of "Years and Years." Forces beyond the individual's control have taken hold, or as Edith explains on Monday's episode, "We don't pause, we don't think, we just keep racing to the next disaster."

What makes this series effective is that not-too-distant horizon. It doesn't play out 50 years from now, but next year, then a few years after that, and then a few beyond that. Viewers can see the roadmap, and by always keeping them within the realm of the plausible, the ambient anger and confusion feels plausible, or familiar. With her blunt, colloquial, made-for-TV style that's light on facts and long on bluster (that also sounds familiar), Viv steps into the breach. Viv (along with Davies) shows how democracy dies one sound bite at a time. There's a vacuum out there born of fear, confusion and anger. She shows just how easy it is to fill that. 

If "Years and Years" sounds dystopic (it is) or like a long episode of "Black  Mirror" (that, too), Davies makes certain not all hope is lost. The Lyons family accomplishes that trick. Its members are complicated, fraught and human, but they do seem to prove — to borrow a line from the famous poem — that "what will survive of us is love."

Hey, at least something will survive.

BOTTOM LINE A celebrated English TV writer finally comes to American TV with a compelling — and timely — new series.

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