Just a few years back, TV Land looked like a WPA for out of work actors. Given that Hot in Cleveland (which is ending its six year end this season) was a sizable hit, the channel started pulling former TV superstars and throwing them into hacky sitcoms. Watching some of TV Land’s original programming felt like jumping into a time machine and landing in mid 1990s network television.
So I have to be honest, I didn’t have high expectations for Younger, which was a mistake because judging from the first two episodes, it’s a charming, funny, and smart comedy. Moving away from the “live from a studio audience” mode of the other TV Land shows, the single-cam Younger owes more to Sex and the City – which makes all kinds of sense because one of its creators is Darren Star. Like Star’s classic HBO dramedy, Younger takes place in New York City, and features a cast of beautiful, fashion-forward women.
Besides being on TV Land, the other reason I was worried about Younger‘s chances is its premise: a middle-aged divorcee has trouble returning to the work force after years of raising a child, so she successfully passes herself off as a 26 year old. Despite the gimmicky (and questionable) plot, the show works well.
Broadway vet Sutton Foster is Liza, a 40-year-old single mother who is struggling with finding work after a financially disastrous divorce. Because of agism, Liza finds herself left behind, and unable to get a job. After being mistaken for a twentysomething at a bar, Liza lies that she’s in her mid-twenties, and gets a job, assisting publishing exec Diana (Miriam Shor).
Younger‘s pilot works well because Star manages to cram a lot in the 20 minutes, and none of it feels too forced. The jokes all land, and Star makes some great commentary about how society tosses off women who are over 30. It’s an important point to make, and Younger deserves all kinds of props for doing that. In TV Land’s other show Hot in Cleveland, agism is often trivialized by the show’s treating of the characters as comedic monsters. The tone in Younger is subtler and the poignancy isn’t marred by hokey jokes.
But in Younger, Liza’s problems – despite her privilege – are real. She has difficulties in trying to fold herself into the world of a twentysomething. At her publishing firm, she has an ally, junior editor, Kelsey (Hilary Duff). The two women forge a friendship that helps Liza figure out how to be a twentysomething in 2015 (there are lots of trendy references to social media and celebrities which may date the show in the future).
At home, Liza has wonderful support from her best friend, Maggie (the faaaaaabulous Debi Mazar). The two have a great relationship that is beautifully played by the two actresses. Mazar is a great character actress who deserves work like Younger that takes advantage of her sullen comic timing. Like Sex and the City, Younger is at its strongest when it examines female friendship, and Foster and Mazar have great chemistry. Foster also has great scenes with Duff, who has developed into a very good and appealing actress. Poor Shor is saddled with a one-note role that tries too hard to be Miranda Priestly, but the actress does what she can – hopefully as the show progresses, Diana will be allowed to be more than just a cartoon of female corporate power unhinged. In fact, the Diana character plays like a major regressive comment on how business and ambition is likely to turn women into corrosive and frightening shrews. In a show with the kind of feminist tone like Younger, such a choice is bewilderingly tone deaf.
As mentioned earlier, the show’s main problem is its reliance on pop culture trends and tropes – not always a smart way to go because fads often fad within a few months. But the show’s main message and point is so slyly served that viewers won’t feel as if they are being lectured – and that’s when comedy works at its best: when it’s teaching you something and you don’t realize you’re learning.