The BBC series Years and Years offers a tantalising glimpse of the future. While the basic urban fabric of dowdy English streets remains the same, the rate of change accelerates.
The descent of politics to clown-like entertainment continues apace. After his second term, Trump is replaced by Mike Pence. And a stalemate in British politics provides an opening for the maverick Vivienne Rook, who wakes up audiences by offering frank critiques with disarming honesty, dropping the occasional “f” bomb to demonstrate her ordinariness.
Meanwhile, the smart assistant has become to pervade life. While the Alexa-Siri-OK Google entity of “signor” offers boundless knowledge, its real value is to allow the family to share voice calls—to simply to be in each others company. Word can spread between family members when Vivienne Rook is on television for everyone to watch at the same time and share their responses.
The family does come together for an annual birthday of the matriarch in the eternal family home. It’s not an exclusive family. To use an English expression, it’s a bit of a “muddle” with different colours and sexual preferences. It’s certainly not a bastion of purity but is a steadfast unit that somehow seems to survive the turmoil that mounts around it.
What’s noticeable about the technology they inhabit is the absence of email or messaging. The communication is almost entirely in real-time. This seems the opposite of devices today, which seem to reduce opportunities for co-presencing.
So is family the answer? Years and Years certainly turns to the family as the ultimate refuge. It suggests that no matter how terrible the world becomes, we can always have each other.
When the moment of liberation finally occurs at the end, it’s not due to any organised force, such as an insurrection or opposition movement. It happens magically with a kind of national co-presencing through a mass of smartphone cameras that reveal the truth. But the logic of the plot suggests that the public realm has become immune to the truth. There’s no exploration of how this awakening might happen, other than the deus ex machina of the camera.
Like almost every series, the core message is to encourage viewers to watch more series. The family can sit together to chat and respond to what’s happening on the screen, without necessarily engaging in the world around them. You could argue that binge-watching is one of the most powerful roadblocks to concerted action on climate change. Whatever is happening in this world, we can always escape into the fantasy scenarios that inhabit Netflix, opening our front door only to accept Uber Eats. Capitalism eats itself.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the sharp English cleverness and slick production that underpins Years and Years. But I will still go to my local branch meetings for a taste of real change.