I didn’t expect to like Russell T. Davies’ Years and Years nearly as much as I do; in the years since his Doctor Who run, I’ve dropped away from his work because I soured so much on him during Who, which amplified all his tics and tropes to such a degree that it became difficult to see anything else. When Years and Years was announced, it looked like more of the same, with the gimmicky conceit — the series would fast forward through the next 15 years in six episodes — and a cast of familiar faces that had shown up in other RTD projects.
I was prepared to skip it, but the reviews when it aired in the UK were great, and I was in the mood for something else from a British perspective, having raced through Fleabag and a rewatch of the first season of No Offense. (Now, that show I need to write about at some point.) Plus, there it was, launching on HBO and I could simply just check out the first episode, so what was the harm…?
I was, I confess, not prepared. It does have a lot of the RTD tricks and cliches — he has a very particular view of families and how they work, and a love of pushing ideas into a cutesy absurdity as if he’s not fully prepared to commit to the underlying horror; he’s also breathtakingly sentimental at times — but there’s something winningly chilling about how quickly he takes everything to worst case scenarios and keeps pushing. The first episode offers nuclear apocalypse! And it works, especially because the world continues on afterwards and people start underselling their own responses to the end of the world, even as — especially as — things get worse and worse around them.
That’s one of the things the show does really well; it starts with a nuclear bomb, then goes on to show that, really, that is the least of everyone’s worries, considering things that are actually taking place in the real world today. By the time you get to the fifth episode, where the US airing is now, it’s worryingly close to where the US is now. The “erstwhile,” indeed…
More than anything, the show’s mixture of writerly polemic about how screwed up we are (and how close to being more screwed, not screwed up, we are), kitchen sink drama, and belief that Northern accents denote sincerity and authenticity, reminds me of Threads, the post-nuclear drama of the 1980s, as well as other classic British TV dramas, like Boys from the Black Stuff. It’s all exceptionally watchable stuff, with moments of genuine insight and humor sitting next to over the top camp melodrama; it’s a show that argues that Russell T. Davies deserves to be talked about as one of British TV’s great dramatists again.
It’s also, oddly, a show about the future that feels curiously, unavoidably old-fashioned. But that contradiction just makes me like it more.