When I first started watching Younger I thought, “Well, this will be okay for a few episodes, but I doubt I’ll watch a whole season.” The next thing I knew I was four seasons deep and fully invested in the characters. I even audibly gasped at nearly every season finale! Now in its sixth season, the show, created by Darren Star (Sex and the City, Melrose Place), is still funny, smart, frothy, dishy, and addictive.
Step one in watching Younger? Don’t be put off by the premise, which at first appears to be pretty absurd and bound to fail. You ready? A forty-year-old suburban mother poses as a 26-year-old to get a job in a New York publishing house. Wait! Don’t strain your eyeballs rolling them. I promise it’s going to work better than you expect.
So, after Liza Miller (Sutton Foster), a forty-year-old stay-at-home mother, gets dumped by her no-good husband (he cheats on her and gambles away all their savings), she moves from her suburban-home-owning, white-wine-drinking, book-club-attending life in New Jersey to live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with her lifelong friend Maggie (Debi Mazar!), a lesbian artist with little patience for encroaching hipsters and delightfully biting commentary, who lives in a ginormous loft.
Liza desperately wants to restart the career in publishing that she put on hold to raise her daughter (now eighteen and oh-so-conveniently spending a year in India), but after some disastrous interviews it’s clear that, given her age and the multi-year gap in her work history, absolutely no one is going to hire her. Devastated and desperate, she goes out for drinks with Maggie, where she meets the very flirty and attractive Josh (Nico Tortorella), a sweet, 26-year-old tattoo artist who mistakenly believes he and Liza are the same age. She doesn’t correct him and thus the (drunken) scheme to pose as a younger woman is born. After a few highlights in her hair, some quirky thrift-outfits, a crash course in pop culture references, a scrubbing of her internet presence, a fake ID and, might I add, some very good genes (those were pre-existing), Liza lands a position as an entry-level assistant at Empirical Publishing, and, of course, she also lands some very hot sex with Josh.
And sure, if this were real life we would all probably be deeply disturbed to hear about this kind of farce (even if we understood, which of course we do, the kind of rampant ageism, not to mention disgusting sexism, that led to it). But this is not reality! Not one bit! So we like Liza even though (or maybe even because) we know she’s a lying liar-face. Also, Sutton Foster exudes a kind of jubilant charm that makes it almost impossible to do anything but root for her.
I think, as well, that the series is making a kind of commentary about women having the space to fuck up and be forgiven. You know, the way men have gotten to do for-fricking-ever. (Though, it’s only directly making that commentary about white women, and not about women of color, who are given even less space.)
Liza works as the assistant to Diana Trout (Miriam Shor), a prickly, powerhouse of a Marketing Director (and my favorite character), who came up when publishing was even more of a man’s game than it is now. She is extremely pretentious and has a reputation for being impossible to please, but she is also somewhat vulnerable and deeply in need of supportive friends. Ultimately, I would argue, she does the most growing of any character on the show so far. During Liza’s hiring interview Diana bluntly asks her, “Can you make strong coffee, never wear perfume, and not annoy me?” (This is what I wish I could ask of anyone and everyone before having any sort of social interaction.) Another time she tells Liza, “I really need you to be on your game today…And then raise your game several levels to my game. Do you think you can do that?” Insert all the heart eye emojis here. When she makes a bet with another publishing executive as to who can get the most steps, she makes Liza wear the FitBit and do the walking. This is cold-blooded and genius. In case it’s not absolutely clear, I love her fiercely. Diana also has the largest assortment of statement jewelry in the known universe. Some of her necklaces could double as landing pads for small helicopters. Others may actually be satellites that never made it into space. I like to imagine the costume designers placing bets as to whether they can out-statement the previous statement pieces. I also worry greatly for Miriam Shor’s neck muscles and I hope she has a very good physical therapist on call.
(This concludes my ode to Miriam Shor’s portrayal of Diana Trout.)
Kelsey Peters (Hilary Duff) is warm and welcoming, extremely mainstream in her tastes, but also incredibly driven and innovative. She was once Diana’s assistant, but now works as an Assistant Editor at Empirical. She quickly befriends Liza and, believing they are the same age, takes her under her wing.
Through Kelsey, Liza also becomes friends with Lauren Heller (Molly Bernard), a pansexual, social media obsessed publicist who says things like, “I gotta jet to this party where they’re serving sushi off cisgender models.” Molly Bernard should be commended for making her character over-the-top without veering into annoying. Charles Brooks (Peter Hermann), who inherited the company from his father, is dedicated to the industry and to Empirical Publishing. He is also incredibly tall, very squared-jawed, and always impeccably dressed. He, it will shock you to learn, shares an immediate physical and intellectual attraction with Liza. (Cue the heavenly singing because herewith the television gods have bequeathed upon us a scrumptious love triangle for Liza, with Charles—educated, thoughtful, age-appropriate, and old-school—on one vertex and Josh—young, earnest, artistic, and kind—on another. Both, you will be extremely relieved to hear, have very Genetically Blessed Faces™ and very honed Longing Looks™. Can I get an AH-MEN?!?)
(Though, I will say that it was Liza’s ever-so-brief relationship with Jay Malick (Aasif Mandvi) that I rooted for the most. Aasif Mandvi is pretty damn delightful as a romantic interest in both this and This Way Up. Give Aasif Mandvi more romantic roles!!)
So, Liza starts living a double life. Most of the time she is living as a twenty-six year old publishing assistant, partying until all hours with her new friends, having oodles of satisfying sex with Josh, and mostly killing it at her new job. But she is also a forty-year old mother trying to scrape together enough money to support her daughter, fighting with her estranged husband over divorce arrangements, racing to keep up with millennial trends, and trying to keep her past life from oozing into her present one (and vice versa). FaceTime calls from her daughter, old New Jersey neighbors venturing into Brooklyn, and vindictive former colleagues, among others, constantly threaten to blow her cover. Much to its credit, the show leans right into the absolutely absurd in the scenarios it cooks up for Liza to maintain her secret, my favorite being when a beam falls from a crane directly onto someone who is threatening to expose her. You read that right, and it’s good television. (Since we’re on the subject of unrealistic, I will say that the most unrealistic moment in the series thus far is when Diana and Liza go to J.C. Penney to buy supplies for an author party. This is clearly some tie-in marketing ploy for the show, but there is simply no way in hell—not even if they paved over hell and put up an ice rink—that Diana Trout, who dresses only in designer clothing and the aforementioned gargantuan accessories, would ever go near a J.C. Penney. It would give her immediate hives. No disrespect intended to Diana or to J.C. Penney.)
The publishing industry is a character unto itself, and a pretty entertaining one at that. Industry jokes abound, and no trend, bestseller, well-known author, or pop culture icon goes unmentioned, un-skewered, or un-parodied. George R.R. Martin becomes Edward L.L. Moore (played to the fullest by Richard Masur), the somewhat lecherous author of the beloved Crown of Kings series. John Green becomes Rob Olive, author of the very popular book #I’m Dying. The infamous beauty blogger Cat Marnell is reimagined as Jade Winslow, who blows her book advance on things like $600 hamburgers and never writes a single word. Literary references to actual books and authors—from Chinua Achebe to Joyce Carol Oates—also come fast and furious in nearly every episode, and a love of reading is held up as an elevating character trait. Diane Rehm even has a cameo!
The show is at all times absolutely unapologetic about its interest in portraying things from a female gaze, and in focusing on things that are important to women. And why the hell would it apologize anyway? There are references to larger scheme things like ageism (obviously), sexual assault, sexism, and gender stereotypes. There are open and often funny discussions about things like sex, vaginas (though sometimes they really mean vulvas), menstrual cups, gender, sexuality, erotica for older women, societal expectations, and more in nearly every episode. Though, while the show works to include topics like sexuality and gender identity, it doesn’t do much in the way of addressing racial or ethnic diversity. And yes, sure, in the first season there are some very clunky and overly broad moments around age where it feels like they’re trying too hard to make sure we understand the generational divide. For example, Liza doesn’t know what IRL means, which…Has she been living in New Jersey or on an iceflow? She is also the parent of a teenager, IRL, and has accessed the internet, so one presumes she could at least try to suss that out. Another time, Kelsey refers to Maggie as an “old lady,” which, again, feels like they really want us to acknowledge the age difference as vitally important and an impassable chasm. And I admit, in the beginning I spent a lot of time trying to decide whether it was poking fun at Millennial or Gen X women, but I think the answer is both. It’s gently teasing and uplifting both generations of women. And, as the series progresses, these kinds of stilted exchanges give way to showing how women approach things like sex, sexuality, work, and friendship at different stages of their lives. The female characters learn from each other (and their own mistakes) and they learn to lean on each other as they grapple with life. Liza learns from the younger women how to embrace her own sexual pleasure, and she (and Maggie) in turn help them see their own value and strength in relationships.
But, with a long-con of a premise that feels like it’s one sitcom-style kerfuffle away from falling apart, you may still be wondering why I kept watching beyond the first season. And since you asked so nicely, I’ll let you in on the unclassified intel. Very gradually more and more people learn about Liza’s real age, until it’s only a secret in the loosest sense of the word. It makes sense, right? I mean, you can’t have beams fall on everyone who might expose her. That would get awfully messy. (Don’t worry, though, even as Liza’s big lie fades into the background, the show still finds plenty of absurd and outlandish situations to mine for material.) This shift allows Liza’s two personas and two worlds to grow and intertwine until the lines between them are blurred or gone all together. In the beginning, for example, Liza has her forty-year-old wardrobe and her twenty-six year old wardrobe—one is staid and one is fun—but, as the series progresses, she no longer has to make hurried costume changes to interact with people from different parts of her life (even then they don’t know about her farce). This allows the series more and more room to grow. And, as it progresses through the seasons, the show only gets funnier and more heartfelt while maintaining its delightfully endearing balance of floatier froth and heavier substance.
Edited to add: This review does not apply to the final season of Younger, which was Diana Trout-less and a complete shambles.