Sometimes it’s hard to get a clear look at what’s right on top of us.
The news is coming at us from all directions — it’s on TV, online, and, yes, still in print — but what we know about whatever big thing is happening at this moment might be different from what we could know. In 30 years, someone is likely to tune out the noise and put our present into perspective, and then to share it with others, in whatever way people will be sharing such things in 30 years.
Assuming that we’re not back to depicting our daily lives on the walls of caves, it could be a drama, not a documentary, that ultimately makes the difference in how pieces of 2019 will be remembered.
That’s what is happening with When They See Us, the four-part Netflix drama from Ava DuVernay that tells the stories of the five teenage boys who were wrongly convicted, and served years in prison, in the 1989 rape of a jogger in New York’s Central Park. Their convictions were vacated in 2002 after another man confessed to the crime and DNA evidence backed up his account. The Central Park Five, a documentary by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon, that aired on PBS in 2013, told the story well, but without achieving the punch to the gut of DuVernay’s miniseries.
No one has so far verified Netflix’s June 12 claim on Twitter that “When They See Us has been the most-watched series on Netflix in the U.S. every day since it premiered on May 31.” But it’s getting well-deserved attention for showing not only what happened, but for exposing the flaws, at every level, in a justice system that isn’t always focused on justice. Only time will tell whether it will change more of the hearts and minds that media coverage of the case helped seal shut.
HBO, meanwhile, scored an unexpected hit with its miniseries Chernobyl, a grim but absorbing account of the nuclear accident in what was then Soviet Ukraine that told us that what happened there in 1986 could have been even worse. But it’s about more than a disaster at a faraway plant.
As Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin told reporters in February, "the cautionary tale here is about what happens when people choose to ignore the truth. ... The truth does not care. The world gets hotter whether we agree with it or not, and that is something that I hope people can take away from the show — that in the end, we have choices about what we will or will not confront as true, but the truth does not care, and it will come to pass.”
As I’ve watched these shows and others in which television attempts to come to grips with the not-so-distant past, I’ve been wondering how much time has to pass before we can begin to see our turbulent news cycle as something more than a series of scary headlines and distracting tweets.
Five years? Ten? Twenty?
On Monday, HBO will offer a glimpse of what dramatic perspective might look like in the premiere of the six-episode series Years and Years.
A co-production with Britain’s BBC One and France’s Canal+, it follows the British Lyons family 15 years into the future and features Emma Thompson (in theaters now in both Late Night and Men in Black: International) as an outrageous TV personality who rides the crest of a populist movement.
Creator Russell T Davies (Torchwood, Queer as Folk) is clearly no fan of the current U.S. president — whose 2020 reelection he includes in the show’s first episode — or of the anti-immigration sentiment that helped fuel his own country’s Brexit movement. Don’t share his beliefs? Understood. There’s enough, beyond politics, in Years and Years’ visions of the future to interest (or worry) anyone.
Technology, for starters.
The familiar-looking virtual assistant the Lyons family addresses as Signor keeps siblings Stephen (Rory Kinnear), Daniel (Looking’s Russell Tovey), and Rosie (Ruth Madeley) in touch with one another and with their globetrotting activist sister Edith (Jessica Hynes) as well as with their plainspoken grandmother (Last Tango in Halifax’s Anne Reid). For those already running their lives with the help of Alexa or staying close to family with WhatsApp, the near future may look pretty ordinary.
Until, that is, Stephen and his wife, Celeste (T’Nia Miller) discover that their daughter Bethany (Lydia West) has become so addicted to her tech that she’s determined to become one with it.
It says something for both the writing and the performances that its characters add up to a believable family, given that the Lyons clan represents a range of incomes and political opinions and includes, besides Bethany, an interracial couple, a gay couple, a single mother who uses a wheelchair, a possibly transgender youngster, and a feisty matriarch who believes that tsunamis are “an entirely modern invention” and whose reaction to a cataclysmic event in Monday’s premiere is to pull out the teacups.
They are there, fortunately, for one another as much as they are to help Davies depict a variety of reactions to Thompson’s character, the cannily charismatic Vivienne Rook.
Thompson’s all in on Rook, an entrepreneur who, during an appearance on a public-affairs show, draws gasps all around by answering a question about Israel and Palestine by dropping an F-bomb to convey just how much she doesn’t care about what might be happening in the Middle East, which she experiences as “just headlines shouting at me.”
All she wants, she says plaintively, “is for my bins to be collected once a week, you know. I want the primary school 200 yards from my house to pick up its own litter. And for the love of God, my mother walks with a stick. Could people please just stop parking on the pavement?”
Even those who consider Rook ridiculous may share her headline fatigue. I was watching an episode of the show when I looked up at one of the newsroom monitors to see the so-much-not-the-point CNN headline “Trump boots chief of staff for coughing during interview,” and thought about how hard it must be for Davies, or anyone, to satirize a medium that’s moved so far beyond satire.
The four episodes I’ve seen of Years and Years aren’t perfect, but they nail the way we humans adjust to shifting circumstances by focusing on the people and things closest to us, especially when looking at the bigger picture becomes unbearable.
At the same time, it’s here to challenge anyone’s belief that elections change nothing, that all politicians, left, right, and middle of the road, operate within the same rough parameters, and that it’s possible, given money and education, to totally shield oneself and one’s family from political and economic upheavals.
Davies’ future isn’t scary because it’s so far out, but because it seems so close we can almost touch it.
Years and Years. 9 p.m. Monday, June 24, HBO.
When They See Us. Netflix.
Chernobyl. HBO Go, HBO Now, HBO On Demand.