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The Crown, plus a trip through dystopian drama

This week’s post takes a look at three different shows on screens right now, from two very different dystopian dramas, Years and Years and Black Mirror, to the popular, historical series The Crown. First up, is the English series Years and Years, which has just come to SBS On Demand in Australia after screening in the UK.

Quick Plug: If you’re looking for more inspiration for shows and books, check out the November wrap-up on what to watch and what to read.

Years and Years

The six-part drama series Years and Years starts in 2019 and takes a leap forward 15 years to follow a tight-knit family who navigate the trails and tribulations of everyday life in this imagined future. The family consists of four adult siblings, their partners, and children, and their grandmother, who all live in Manchester. If you can imagine a slightly idealised version of an accepting family with caring siblings who support each other through their own challenges, with a small dose of in-law tension, you’ll have the right picture.

In this futuristic drama, the Lyons family has self-driving cars, smart speakers that with a simple voice command link the family together for video chats, a teen daughter who has her phone implanted into her hand and who also has a headset that projects Snapchat-like filters over her face. One sister, an activist, uses mobile phones and fake fingerprints to engage in a bit of tech-inspired corporate sabotage. The middle-age brother has to take a job as a bike courier and joins the gig economy, working for below the minimum wage after losing the family home in the recession. The US is in conflict with China thanks to Trump, there are refugee camps in the city, robots help out in the kitchen, and the bedroom, yet the family still gather for birthdays, sharing wine and BBQs together. On their TVs and screens, populist MP Viv Rook (played by Emma Thompson) – Marine Le Pen meets Nigel Farage politician – dishes out her simplistic political rhetoric. She has her own political movement, the Four Star Party, and even her own TV network so she can’t be shut down. 

What makes this series so chilling, and relevant, is that like some of the best dystopian stories, it sets the story just a little bit ahead, in the near future. It’s not distracted by imagined future gadgets or trying to claim in advance an accurate clairvoyance on how future lives will look. It takes our lives of today and sort of elongates them, exaggerating the issues and themes and, in doing so, offers us an opportunity to reflect on the way we’re living now and how we may be living  in a decade or so.

You could say it’s a little heavy handed in the way each family member faces their own problems or setbacks. And if I was to offer a criticism, I’d say that not too many people have the accepting, supportive family the show depicts, but the family circle is a counterpoint to the bleak, alienating world of the 2020s and 30s. 

The unsettling experience of watching this story of the near-future is that it’s so believable, with its dystopian vision of high-tech activism and tech-connected family conversations, intertwined with the conflicts and inflated politics of the wider world. It’s a cautionary tale about the creeping incrementalism of technology slowly saturating our lives, the trampling effect of globalisation that feeds rampant political populism and the dehumanising cost of convenience. How can we and resist the forces of the tech industrial complex, which together may actually be greater than us? Will the future look like this?

Years and Years

SBS On Demand, BBC (not currently available)

Black Mirror

And so to another dystopian series, Black Mirror, currently streaming on Netflix and now in its fifth series, with 22 episodes in the back catalogue. The British show is created by Charlie Brooker, an English writer, author and TV presenter, and co-produced by Annabel Jones. It’s an anthology series, inspired by the likes of The Twilight Zone, about humans and their interactions with technology. It started out on Channel 4, but after creative disagreements the duo took it to Netflix and have continued on, picking up Emmy’s and a loyal following for the series.

In an early episode, life is recorded and stored on a chip implanted in each person’s head. Need to settle an argument about who said what? Simple, just hit rewind and you can verify. Want to step back into a past relationship? Easily done. Worried you said the wrong this in a job interview? Just go back and check. But, of course, it’s not that simple, because, well, humans like to complicate things. If you’re prone to over-analysing things and dwelling on things or just want to stir up all conflicts, this sort of things isn’t going to go well for you. Then there’s the questions of how will we navigate virtual sex? Or what happens to our Alexa-like objects who have fully developed personalities? 

The series plays into our collective anxiety about the place of technology in our lives, enhancing yet interfering with the human experience of living. It’s the dystopian technology future, whereas Years and Years is more the dystopian political future. Yet even with this, the show does have a sense of humour about the interesting and awkward situations we might find ourselves in, in this technology driven futurescape. 

In interviews, Brooker and Jones say they’re actually positive about the future, despite what Black Mirror might suggest. They liken the changes being brought to our lives through technology, which creates mistrust and anxiety, to those which comes through every profound disruption, from the printing press to fake news. 

As the creators reportedly said to The Independent

“Our stories are not warnings. Technological progress is completely inevitable. We think more about the human characters. They’re not societal warnings. And I think we’re quite optimistic.”

Still, Black Mirror depicts a complicated outlook for our future interactions with technology, ourselves and each other. Perhaps then it’s just priming us by giving us a sneak peak into the kinds of experiences we might have, and the dilemmas we might face, so we’re prepared.

Black Mirror

Netflix

The Crown

The growing scandal that’s been slowly engulfing a certain prince in the UK is probably one of the most serious crises the monarchy has faced in many years. It’s the kind of thing one imagines being written into a future episode, or ten, of the Netflix series The Crown.

Wanting to take a break from imaging the problems of the future with Years and Years and Black Mirror, the Broad has been eagerly awaiting The Crown season three, which is streaming now.

This season the crown has been handed to Olivia Coleman to play HRH and the series picks up in the 1960s and takes it forward. It begins with a new Labor prime minister, moves through the awful Aberfan mining disaster in Wales, recounts with some creative licence Britain’s appeal to the US for a bailout, tells of the discovery of a spy in the royal household and explores the undefined role of younger sister, Princess Margaret.

One of the things which makes the series so compelling is how the lives of the Royal household are so removed from the ordinary, but also full of ordinary human emotions and dilemmas. The lives of extreme privilege, relieved of the everyday burdens of jobs, housing and education, yet facing situations of historical importance in the unforgiving glare of public scrutiny on a global stage makes for compelling drama.

The series centres on the monarch, but as viewers we can’t fully access the internal person – it’s as though the role of Queen is almost always dominant. Sure, it’s TV and a speculative take on the royal household, but the show suggests something unknowable and inaccessible in the monarch. The writer wants us to imagine someone groomed for the role, which requires duty to overtake the personal and the private. And so despite being a public figure for most of her life, the woman remains unknowable to some extent – a figurehead who represents Crown and country before herself. Perhaps to provide a steadfastness for the nation through the crown, it’s necessary to absent the self in favour of the institution.

The monarchy has sometimes seemed like a soap opera, but it shares its longevity with the country’s history and many of its major events. The Broad is looking forward to watching the rest of the episodes in this season.

Finally, you’re inspired by The Crown, do have a look at this post about Victoria, which has some suggestions on books and movies about the monarch.

The Crown, Netflix

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Rosalyn Page
Journalist, blogger and writer covering arts, culture, travel and digital lifestyle at www.rosalynpage.com and www.somenotesfromabroad.com.

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