Underdog ‘Younger’ Is A Really Powerful Show About Women
“Younger” just wrapped its first season on TV Land, and for such an obvious concept, the show was far fresher than most cable television these days. From creator Darren Star of “Sex and The City” fame, it shouldn’t come as a surprise (I will continue to argue until the end of time that SATC was a triumph for women and the medium itself). But until the show aired all of its first 12 episodes to reveal true wit and a finger firmly on the pulse of both the lives of twentysomethings and fortysomethings, the primary concept seemed so overly saturated with today’s obsession with youth that it would be impossible to ring any substance out of it. But as it turns out, if “Sex and The City” was a victory for women’s sexuality being represented on TV, “Younger” is a victory for women’s intellect being front and center.
The show centers on Liza (Sutton Foster), a 40-year old divorcée who after 15 years as a stay-at-home mom is left with next to nothing from her cheating, gambling ex. Liza had given up a growing career in Manhattan publishing to settle her family in the New Jersey suburbs, and as she tries to regain what she once had, is rudely awakened by the fact that no one wants to hire a 40-year-old who’s been out of the game. Encouraged by her groovy, lesbian, artist best friend Maggie (Debi Mazar), she decides to pretend to the world that she is 26 and see if a facade of youth might redefine her credibility.
And in true cinematic fashion, of course it does.
She quickly becomes the publishing assistant to very Devil Wears Prada-y marketing director, Diana (Miriam Shor). She stumbles onto botheringly-hot, tattoo artist boyfriend, Josh (Nico Tortorella). She makes quick friends with young, hip editor, Kelsey (Hilary Duff). All the while she keeps her old self (pun intended) alive through “welcome to 26” talks with Maggie about her exploits, and skyping with her daughter at college in India.
When I first read about the show, with Hillary Duff using words like “sassy” and “edgy” in an interview with Elle—words that are meaningless in today’s world of promotional puff pieces and faux-edge—I was convinced that the show would be a torturous experiment in television’s frequent failure to mimic any sort of reality.
What came out instead was so realistic it borders on being a feminist show.
Liza and Josh have a palpable attraction and heavily-mentioned great sex, but it isn’t sensationalized to add some kind of drippy grit. Kelsey starts seeing the Swedish author she’s working with, despite her full time boyfriend, Thad. But the affair is quietly seeded in the fact that her boyfriend is controlling and emotionally abusive.
Kelsey’s unhappiness is validated in flashes of Thad forcing shots on her and talking down to her, but it isn’t dwelled upon, and there is no glossy moment where Kelsey tells him to kick rocks. Instead Liza tries to convince Kelsey that she is worth more, only to be met by an indignant Kelsey that doesn’t think Liza has a right to judge. And then the show moves on, in keeping with the very real way that people in their twenties engage in unhealthy relationships all of the time, and deal in much more human ways than an eye-opening conversation with a gal pal over coffee that suddenly solves everything.
All of the characters ultimately have a dynamism that is rare in the kind of trendy pulp TV that “Younger” advertises itself as. Diana ultimately reveals her bitchiness to be the by-product of her career versus love life. She is desperate for something more than high power, but because it’s all she has, she wields it like a sword. Head publisher, Charles, (Peter Hermann) is left by his younger wife for another man, and the expectation from the viewer for him to be a pig feeding on his office full of young, eager women, is undermined by his unexpected sadness.
Maggie is the fedora-wearing, zinger-delivering character who could totally be used as a chuckle crutch, but is just as desirous as everyone else, in her case for a validation in the art world. Liza’s twenty-something friends even evolve from not wanting her to bring her old friend, to asking her to bring her “OWL-wise, old, lesbian,” to round out the fact that not all millennials are insufferable ageists.
Josh is supposed to be the dumb, pretty hipster who reawakens Liza sexually, but the show undermines that as well, devoting a whole episode to the offense he takes to Liza insinuating he’s not smart, and proving her otherwise.
Foster’s Broadway sensibilities lend her such an earnest delivery that her sincerity keeps the show from being bogged down in cynicism. Because of her child-like rediscovery of herself and the world, the darker things that happen around her seem less hack and more human. What really keeps the show from falling into schtick though is the constant refocusing from the interpersonal drama to what everyone hopes to achieve. Every character wants to prove that they are more than their looks, more than their gender, more than their age, more than the stigma society puts on any one of their demographics.
They support each other. Liza and Kelsey are not competitors; they encourage and
help one another pull themselves up the ladder. Maggie keeps Liza grounded. None of them want to be a bad friend or bad at their job, two ideas that aren’t focused on enough in TV.
Then there’s the pay off of humor. The show is culturally savvy in a way that keeps you waiting for the next tidbit. Josh’s jug band is called the Bedford Avenue Bluegrass band, which is a great joke on both New York and Hipsters. When Kelsey reveals herself to her Swedish lover’s wife as his mistress, through great diligence from the writers, she gets to say “I am the Walrus.”
Liza’s old suburban friends use “going to Brooklyn” as a metaphor for bi-curiosity. There are Tolstoy jokes. There are publishing-world slush pile jokes. There are a whole lot of hashtag jokes. There are hyper self-aware one liners like “Gawker would have a field day with this” and “There’s no crying in publishing.”
The feminism is rooted in letting the women be desirous and without the paralyzing constant analysis of life that Hollywood likes to suggest all women are encumbered by.
They all support each other in whatever they want to do. From selling used underwear
online when one is hard up for cash, to ecstasy, to a Bat-Mitzvah re-do, to topless selfies, the reinforced theme is to be non judgemental of other women, because we’re all just trying to make it work. Ultimately Liza’s wisdom from age, and the younger women’s inhibition from lack there of, lead to a commentary about how we can all be learn from one another.
Overhearing a phone call Kelsey is having with fellow young person, Lauren (Molly Bernard), where they are jokingly calling each other “whore bags” and “bitches,” Liza quips, “Why do we have to talk to each other like that.”
In that one simple moment Liza draws attention to society infiltrating female-to-female relationships, and Kelsey laughing it off speaks to how it can also be seen as a rebellion to just that. And that is “Younger’s” brilliance in just a flash—the kind of subtle feminist commentary that will make it just as popular as it is important like Star”s “SATC” before it.