Years and Years shows us America's collapse from across the pond
Sometimes you need an outside opinion. Whether it's on the fit of a shirt, a concerning medical diagnosis, or a sinking suspicion that the rest of the world is laughing at you, we all need that person who will tell it to us straight.
The United Kingdom, our ally across the pond, has long played this role for America. And our latest wake-up call might come in the form of Years and Years, a new BBC One miniseries that arrives stateside via HBO on Monday.
Years and Years imagines the planet's dystopian near-future as it is experienced by the Lyons, an upper-middle-class family living in Manchester. Each episode fast-forwards only a few years; the pilot, for example, begins sometime around the present, spans the re-election of President Trump, and concludes with his dramatic final days in office. Of course, with the Lyons being a British family (and Years and Years a British television show), the focus is Euro-centric, making reference to Russia's ambitions on the continent, a cataclysmic refugee crisis, Grexit (for real this time), the rise of the extreme left in Spain, and a Trumpian Parliament-bound politician named Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson).
Throughout the series, news from America arrives the way one might expect for most U.K. citizens: via intermittent news reports. During the course of the show's six episodes, the BBC is shut down, physical newspapers rebound after the power grid collapses in a cyberattack, and fake news and conspiracy theories run rampant — so the only information a stateside viewer can get about our country comes from panicked British broadcasts, or the Lyons mentioning dreadful things they've heard themselves. This can be agonizing. "And now we got America," one of the siblings, Daniel Lyons (Russell Tovey), frets in the first episode.
"Never thought I'd be scared of America in a million years but we've got fake news and false flags. I don't even know what's true anymore."
That might be something any British citizen could realistically say now.
From there, Years and Years jumps ahead in time: "And the world awakes to a second term: the President Donald Trump," a newscaster announces in the first episode to footage of supporters unfurling "Keep America Great" flags. Eerily, while Trump had been flirting with "KAG" as a re-election slogan since 2017, he only confirmed it at a rally last week, long after the relevant episode of Years and Years first aired in the U.K.
That sort of intuition is what helps make Years and Years feel so plausible. Unfortunately, the next news we hear of America is grim: The Lyons' annual winter cookout is interrupted by an emergency announcement that the U.S. has fired a nuclear weapon at "Hong Sha Dao," an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea. "It's a military base with nuclear weapons, that's what America says," Edith Lyons, one of the sisters, tells her less-informed siblings. "He did it, Donald Trump did it in his final days of office." Again, there is a worrying whiff of reality to what might otherwise seem like hyperbole: Just last week, the Federation of American Scientists reported that the Defense Department's new nuclear doctrine said "using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability." The document, which seemingly justified the use of history's most monstrous weapon, was later removed from the DoD's website, but its mere existence makes Years and Years seem chillingly precinct.
The show continues to report on America's worrying collapse abroad through snippets of plausible-sounding news. We learn, for example, that "President Pence has defied the United Nations," while a financial expert on the BBC is caught saying, "But we're making it worse. The more we impose sanctions, the more America swings to the right." A brief overheard conversation between the Lyons refers to Pence being a puppet with "Trump ... still in charge." With former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen having warned that the president might not allow for a peaceful transition of power, Years and Years' fictional drama again hits awfully close to home.
Other events the show portrays as fiction are already on their way to becoming reality: Roe v. Wade is overturned — again, a not-so-fictitious possibility — and gay marriage is banned, as is already being attempted in some states. The collapse of an American investment bank has its roots in warnings of a coming recession. President Pence bans the speaking of Spanish. In the crawl at the bottom of a news report, we learn that Trump has had his face carved into Mount Rushmore, one of Years and Years' admittedly more outlandish and humorous predictions. That preposterousness does little, though, to reassure when so many other scenarios are echoed in headlines we can read on today's very real front pages.
While Years and Years was designed to give British audiences a glimpse into the worst case scenario for their own country's future, the interconnectedness between our two nations means America's fate cannot be skimmed over. As a U.S. viewer, I found it haunting to view our country's downfall filtered through the lens of scattered reports and headlines.
Painted in such broad strokes, you can't nitpick. Instead, it all just feels sickeningly familiar.