The initial round of voting for the 2019 Emmys ends today, but the opening salvos of the 2020 Emmys start tonight with the debut of Years and Years on HBO in less than an hour and the premiere of Showtime’s Roger Ailes bioseries The Loudest Voice on June 30.
Near certain to be prime contenders in the Limited Series category next year, the often excellent Emma Thompson-led British dystopian family drama and the often engrossing Russell Crowe-fronted offering will see Rupert Murdoch as the real winner no matter who takes home the winged trophy at the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards.
In unintentional flattery to the ruthless media mogul, both the partially Tom McCarthy-penned Loudest Voice and the Russell T. Davies-created and -written Years and Years (which has already played in the tabloid flush UK), devoutly depict the riotous political climate of Donald Trump and Brexit strategically cultivated by the now octogenarian on both sides of the Atlantic. Or, put another way, the string-pulling Murdoch and clan may not own any premium cablers, but they own premium cable this week – for better and worse.
Additionally, in the bigger picture of today’s relentless news-cycle roller coaster, the Emmys success of The Loudest Voice and Years and Years will also play out mere weeks before Trump’s possible re-election next fall. A presumption that is the aim in many ways of the real-life events depicted in the Showtime seven-parter and the explosive storyline of the six-part HBO offering that sets up a radioactive and reactive road.
So, with the Murdoch legacy and largesse established in a world breaking out in hives of nationalism, fake news and digital tampering, how do The Loudest Voice and Years and Years compare in their respective reigns of terror past and future?
Well, lathered in fake fat, opportunistic conservatism and a puissant supporting cast of Seth MacFarlane, the amazing Annabelle Wallis and Naomi Watts as the on-tenterhooks Gretchen Carlson, Russell Crowe is pretty good as the now deceased Fox News Channel sovereign Ailes.
However, embracing the black hole future of the Fake Britain, Thompson is even better as power-hungry and media-conducting entrepreneur-turned-unvarnished populist and amoral politician Vivienne Rook, even if the 2019-2034 sprawling Years and Years is a Boris Johnson meme waiting to happen and hobbles too close to weaker parts of Davies’ Doctor Who past once or twice.
Playing a role in strident contrast to her own often expressed political and cultural beliefs, perhaps Oscar winner Thompson tops Oscar winner Crowe because fictional bat-sh*t crazy is a controlled construction rather than a historical depiction.
Already slapped with a lawsuit months before it debuted and sure to be enveloped in disclaimers from those it depicts in the coming weeks, The Loudest Voice cranks up the volume on Ailes’ toxic fiefdom at Fox News in fine fashion. Yet, it never really manages to get under the skin of the real skin the ex-Mike Douglas Show producer had in caressing the body politic of America into anti-elite white rage. Perhaps we will see that masterplanning Ailes in the upcoming Jay Roach-directed big screen movie with John Lithgow, but he is not to be found in the stark Showtime series co-produced by Blumhouse TV.
Pretty much designed for the coastal media audience that has written about Ailes, FNC and the Murdochs over the decades, the discovered drama of The Loudest Voice is the muted screaming matches between the once NBC News executive and the New Corp kingpin over who really rules Fox News and therefore America’s political agenda.
With all of Ailes’ undeniable TV talents and dark arts practices rolled out with sweaty-palmed bluster by Crowe, it is not a fair and balanced battle by any measure. Even given a career-defining portrayal of the New York Post owner by The Borgias alum Simon McBurney that deserves to be compared to Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair, the very much still alive Murdoch comes across as an easily manipulated and prestige desperate magpie – which feels like a true fiction.
In that vein and with each episode centering on a particular year in Ailes’ reign, like the 2008 election of arch foe Barack Obama, Loudest Voice betrays the banality of office politics, even at the almost highest level. Obviously biased to the narrative of Ailes’ rise as FNC claws its way to the top of the cable news heap, Loudest Voice returns again and again to the settlement of “Rupert blinked,” as Crowe’s character actually brags to his Sienna Miller-portrayed wife in one episode just before giving a rousing but ham-fisted Make American Great Again speech to a dejected crowd in his Ohio hometown.
Of course, as wider viewership bait, the sickeningly explicit, increasingly brazen and brutal sexual demands that permeated the two-decade rule of the ex-Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush aide — from the conception of FNC in 1995 to his exit push and golden parachute ouster by the Murdochs in the summer of 2016 — gets a fair amount of screen time too. It’s a nakedly flawed approach, and The Loudest Voice, with the Wallis-portrayed longtime FNC booker Laurie Luhn as the primary victim, regrettably goes for the salacious rather than an serious examination of that institutionalized abuse that slithered through Fox News’ halls, at least from what I have seen.
Following a multi-generation Manchester family over a projected 15 years into once Great Britain’s future, the superior Years and Years owes more than a fair share of plotlines to Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel V For Vendetta and a dollop of Caroline Ahere and Craig Cash’s The Royale Family, as well as an absent Murdoch. From the rise of the self-righteous right, the hypnotic allure of media, the surveillance state, the war against immigrants and the creation of concentration camps on British soil, the originality of Davies’ saga starring Thompson, Rory Kinnear, T’Nia Miller, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes, Ruth Madeley and Anne Reid is in its execution more than its inspiration.
It’s an execution smothered in connecting and intrusive technology plus sexual and gender dynamics as the Lyon family float, surf and drowned on the sweeping waves of change that occur in the very un-United Kingdom of the near post-Brexit future that the A Very English Scandal scriptwriter swims in.
With a surname that harkens to the Royal Arms and will amuse Empire viewers who tune in, the micro-level of the Lyons’ tale plays out as Trump is re-elected in a lone wolf America, Angela Merkel dies, environmental collapse and butterfly genocide becomes almost banal, Russia takes Ukraine, Europe goes up in flames, the economy crashes and the first nuclear weapon is dropped since the end of the Second World War.
Far less Black Mirror and far more black comedy than my description may suggest, the only true conceit of the Years And Years is the refrain of the Lyon siblings that the once upon a time “politics was boring.” The churn of today and a possible tomorrow are in apparent acceleration in the series but the truth is that’s the history of both the 20th and 21st century for the West.
Despite Thompson’s insistence to the contrary, Davies’ writing is clearly not at the level of George Orwell and his 1984 prophesies and the seismic shifts of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Poll Tax riots in the UK in 1990, 9/11, the supersonic rise of China, and Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, the French election of 2017 and seemingly everywhere else are not to be so easily dismissed for convenience.
Yet, the deeply talented Davies is on a roll of late and with the remarkably weaved Years and Years ventures into the heighten realm of Dennis Potter with some of the philosophical shiv of Karl Popper and satire of Veep creator Armando Iannucci. Unlike the UK and world of Years and Years, that’s not a bad place to be.
Certainly watched in tandem, as will be the case as of next week when they are on consecutive nights, there is almost a crossover between The Loudest Voice and Years and Years. So far to the right she’s almost a lefty, Thompson’s scene-chewing Viv Rook is exactly the sort of sock puppet and demographic crossing politician that Ailes would have championed for taking on the establishment and damn the consequences.
As Rupert Murdoch may make damn sure to deliver with hopes of Boris Johnson in No. 10 Downing Street followed by Mike Pence in the White House in 2025.