In an era in which narrowcasting is so dominant, and in which there are so many releases for so many different demographics, it perhaps doesn’t make sense, any more, to describe a series as being underrated. At the very least, however, Darren Star’s Younger deserves more critical acclaim and attention than it has already received, since it may well be the most slyly irreverent take on identity politics to air on a major network, forming a terrific corrective to the feminist aspirations, in particular, of quality television. At its heart is Liza, played by Sutton Foster, a forty-year-old woman who finds herself compelled to get back into the publishing industry, after having given up her career for a suburban life in New Jersey, when her husband leaves her for a younger woman. Moving back to New York as her daughter heads off to college, she shacks up with her best friend Maggie Amato, a queer fixture on the New York arts scene, played by Debi Mazar, who lives in a studio apartment in downtown Williamsburg. From there, Liza applies for job after job, only to realise that her age works against her before she even arrives at the interview, leading to a brilliant plan – namely, to present and style herself as twenty-six, in order to secure employment. It works almost immediately, as she lands a position at Empirical Publishing, where she starts off as the office assistant to Diana Trout, Head of Marketing, played by Miriam Shor, and develops a strong friendship with Kelsey Peters, a twenty-five-year-old book editor played by Hilary Duff, with whom she eventually forms an imprint dedicated to millennials, called Millennial.
What ensues is a kind of passing narrative, in which Liza has to maintain a façade of being in her twenties to everyone except Maggie, since in an era of social media it’s impossible for her to bring any part of her former life in New Jersey to New York, for fear of being “outed” as middle-aged at work. It’s not long before that situation starts to percolate over into her personal life, as she develops a relationship with Josh, plaed by Nico Tortorella, a tattoo artist who lives and works close to Maggie’s apartment in Williamsburg. Tensions arise, however, when she finds herself developing an attraction and rapport with Charles Brooks, played by Peter Hermann, the head of Empirical, who is also in his forties. Between Josh and Charles, a pattern emerges in which Liza finds herself torn between romantic affiliations to men in their forties and men in their twenties, as she finds herself navigating a kind of mid-life-crisis narrative typically only afforded to men in cinema and television. Within that narrative, as might be expected, much of the suspense and tension comes from the ways in which people gradually come to find out about Liza’s true identity – both the people within her inner circle, and amongst the main cast of the series, who find out gradually as the seasons proceed, but also those more marginal characters and guest appearances who find out as the narrative proceeds, and who nearly always use their knowledge of Liza’s age to leverage some kind of favour or information from her, be it personal, sexual or professional.
On its own terms, that would make for a terrific premise for a series, but the execution of Younger is just as good, using Liza’s passing narrative as the basis for a kind of queer temporality that is as perfectly poised and tonally complex as anything I’ve seen in recent years. To some extent, that’s a matter of the performances, with all the cast taking to their roles like veteran character actors, ensuring that even the most staid and normative of heterosexual parts comes to take on the heightened charisma and queer potentiality usually reserves for bit parts in Hollywood romance. In the best possible way, every role here feels like a side role, making for a series that neither aligns itself with heteronorms, but that doesn’t emphatically define itself against them, treating heterosexuality in an incidental, casual, non-normative way that simply imagines it as one option, often a fairly odd option, amongst others. Just as heterosexuality tends to be equated, formally, with resolution in romantic narratives of this kind, so one of the series’ signatures comes to be the way in which it “concludes” its episodes, opting for artful, casual – and yet decisive – moments that relish the jouissance of the present moment in increasingly complex ways. It’s a gesture that inevitably breeds a certain irreverence and ingenuity around disposing of heterosexual archetypes typically associated with having the final word, or forming a point of resolution and consensus to the stories they appear in, and is as innovative, in its way, as the “cold opens” that became the signature of Breaking Bad.
To take just one example, the second season features an episode in which Liza is confronted by an old New Jersey friend and reprimanded for her relationship with Josh, in a sustained sequence that eloquently encapsulates just how much heteronormative discourse is equated with rational, democratic discourse in romantic comedies of this kind. Rather than either conform to or reject her friend’s advice, however, Liza responds by digging into a marijuana lollipop that Josh has given her to get through the night, getting high enough to relish his sheer presence by her side rather than engage in any direct discursive way with a discourse whose very terms reproach her sexual autonomy as a middle-aged woman. That paves the way for the final scene of the episode, in which she and Josh discuss the possibility of marriage and children – a second go at parenthood, for her – but also have intercourse as well, producing an overwhelming taste for the here and now that doesn’t exactly dismiss heterosexual models of longevity, but doesn’t embrace them either, adopting an awry approach in which the very notion of futurity is dissociated from the heteronormative discourses within which it is typically framed and, ultimately, contained.
That poise culminates at the end of the second season and during the third season, in which Star dismantles one trope after another – or, perhaps more accurately, deconstructs one trope after another, as if to demonstrate the extent to which even the most cherished and ostensibly innocent of romantic comedy features is programmatically designed to shame a woman like Liza from following her sexual curiosity, passion and desire. The result, at times, is to almost co-opt the deus ex machina of romcom ideology in the name of feminine, and more broadly queer, desires, culminating with an incredible concusion in which Kelsey’s boyfriend Chad – the name says it all – meets with Liza to blackmail her after finding out about her age, only to be suddenly crushed by a falling crane in a comically utopian vision of how Hollywood might look if all the contrivances were made in favour of precisely the sexual subjectivities that they typically exclude. In an even bigger twist, it now turns out that Chad has a twin brother, Thad, who’s just as creepy but more “sensitive” about it, and who now goes about pursuing Kelsey in turn. While the series does have its fair share of well-drawn straight male characters, there’s something irreverent and even liberating about seeing a certain brand of heteromacho pride rendered as disposable and as expendable as the figures typically rendered disposable and expendable for the sake of its own desires, paving the way for a third season in which even the most sensitive, nuanced and apparently idiosyncratic of romantic options turns out to be enslaved to the same perverse machismo.
Nowhere is that clearer than in a brilliant episode in which Liza becomes entranced by a back-to-basiscs hipster who lives on a pristine property in New England, only to eventually discover that his airy discourses on traditional living come with a proclivity towards bestiality. Still, this is just the most extreme example of a tendency whereby straight bros are treated as peremptorily as middle-aged women typically are in Hollywood comedy. While there’s a profound message in that, it also has interesting formal implications for the series as a whole, since without the straight bro as a conceptual and aesthetic anchor the characterization of the narrative as a whole becomes much more surprising and unexpected, resulting in sustained arcs in which a particular figure gradually discloses or reveals a tendency that would only ever remain latent, inchoate or sublimated in a Hollywood rendition. The result is a profound sense of narrative openness and emergence that turns Younger into just the kind of page-turner that Empirical Publising are always looking for, to the point where it often feels as if Star is offering up a narrative that can no longer be properly told within the aegis of old media, let alone print media, so enmeshed and mired is it with precisely the character archetypes that the series as a whole dismantles.
That’s not to say, however, that the publishing world is simply brokered or dismissed as an allegory for the transition from “old” to “new” media, but that the offices at Empirical play as a cipher for the series’ own fascination with building a different kind of narrative ideology. Those tensions are especially clear in the process whereby Kelsey and Liza’s imprint, Millennial, gradually splinters away from the main Empirical brand, and in doing so opens itself up to a form of publishing that does indeed incorporate the lessons of social media and opt for a more intermedial approach to the “book,” the “text” and the “narrative” as concepts and marketing principles. For that reason, Younger is perhaps unique amongst contemporary series in the irreverence with which it regards millennials, never quite validating them as prophets of the future, but never quite condescending to them either – a position encapsulated in Shor’s series-stealing performance as Diana Trout.
Of all the characters in the show, Diana probably has the most complex relation to Liza. On the one hand, she is Liza’s age, and so technically her peer, but as her manager she also tries to create a different kind of peer relation, continually warning and reminding her about the caution and care she needs to take in order to remain sustainable into her forties. At the same time, Diana’s romantic trajectory is closer to that of an archetypal middle-aged woman in Hollywood romantic comedy, as she finds herself rotating between various romantic and sexual entanglements, but never quite appreciated or engaged with on her own terms. In a sense, she’s not playing a character but a character caught inside a particular conception of a character, and Shor plays that beautifully and deftly, never insisting upon tragedy but never insistsing upon a “dignified” refusal to be tragic. Of all the lines of flight that the series creates, then, the most delicate and the most poised are around Diana, just as the dexterity of the series lies in never presenting Diana or Liza as two “alternative” trajectories – one good, one bad – but as both enmeshed in a system that they are eluding in tandem. In the end, then, Diana’s middle-aged female “wisdom” is itself framed as a source of parody, a motif that belongs to an outdated system in which the very association of “wisdom” with older women is a way of denying their bodies, appetites and sensualities. So, too, her “wisdom” about the idiocy of millennial culture is played as a parody effect, and between those two parodies lies the dexterity with which Younger offers the future as a category that has to be approached in the most oblique, awry and unusual of ways in order to ramify for those people, especially middle-aged women, excluded from it.