Years and Years

Fayes T Kantawala watches TV in a world run by conservative populists

Years and Years
The UN General Assembly was held this past week in New York. The event brings together almost every serving leader in the world into the one city that doesn’t care that they are there, most likely because the logistics for the Madonna concert on 36th street are much trickier than the Latvian PM’s movements. Like every year, I noticed an uptick in unmarked black SUVs manned by men with sunglasses and earpieces. It’s a fun game to see if the scary man across the street is a) Secret Service b) an Israeli bodyguard or, far more likely, c) headed to fashion week dressed in an ironic take on 1980s menswear.

I am a big fan of the UN. Huge. I don’t know why I get joy from seeing a Jamaican entourage crossing the Thai delegation, but I do. As when watching the Olympics or Ms. Universe; I derive great joy from seeing representatives of countries milling about on a stage, unified in at least the pantomime of equality. I like to think its because I believe in the aspirational value of an image of a “world of equals” (a fact I have a hard time reconciling with swimsuit rounds, I can tell you). But my enthusiasm for global events has waned over the years. I have begun to avoid looking at news headlines, article links or people’s social media posts. Climate crisis, species collapse, financial ruin, oppression, racism, homophobia, hate, revulsion. It’s just not worth it.
When it first started happening to me around 2015, I assumed it was a function of age. But the longer I go, I’m beginning to suspect it’s information fatigue

When it first started happening to me around 2015, I assumed it was a function of age. But the longer I go, I’m beginning to suspect it’s information fatigue. You may have it too. I think all our attention spans have been injured by the near constant barrage of crisis headlines, racist populist rhetoric and divisive politics. And so, while I would usually follow the happenings at the General Assembly with the rapt attention that others usually reserve for Yelp reviews, I spent all of this weekend next to a box of Thai food, binging on a show called Years and Years in an effort to escape.

It’s a wonderful show, and not only because Emma Thomson plays a chicer version of Donald Trump. The show revolves around the Lyons family in London, a updated Narnian nuclear family of two brothers and two sisters (and assorted spouses) raised by their long-lived granny. We follow each of them through the years see how things like Brexit, nuclear war, Trump, climate change, social inclusivity, financial collapse and technological integration affect people on both a micro and communal level. At its best, the show is an alarming and intelligent mind exercise to explore what our world could look like in five years, ten or fifteen. But its true appeal is its ability to interrogate our assumptions about who – or what – is responsible for the world we are creating. Through all of it, the show’s diversity acts as a salve for a wound I didn’t even know I had as a viewer.

Promotional image for HBO's 'Years and Years'

The only thing it didn’t do was make me forget about the real world headlines. I saw the whole series in one straight run (there are only 6 episodes) and I woke up the next day with that strange feeling you get after binging on a TV show, where the line between show and reality blur. It can be disconcerting, like when I couldn’t shake the feeling I was in a women’s correctional facility after twelve hours in the Orange is the New Black universe.

And like all our other millennial habits, it feels like Years and Years is aware of this effect too. Its content is convincing because its well conceived, but also because it’s rooted enough in our present reality that when I woke up the next day to see Modi and Trump holding hands like a couple from the Bachelorette in the middle of stadium of screaming nationalists, I worried that I hadn’t shut the TV off last night.

I’m writing about it this week because – like many of us – I’ve been considering the effect that the immediacy of information can have on us as individuals in the long run. Our country is going through an economic crisis right now. In all likelihood, things will get worse. That sense of dread is near universal now, and most of generation is still trying to figure out how much of the dread that we are blasted with is keyboard warriors trying to be heard over each other, or else a very real sign that we are sinking.

This show is the first cultural product I’ve seen in a long time that knew that asking questions is often more useful than proving answers.

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