When we first meet Hilary Duff’s “Younger” character, twenty-something junior editor Kelsey, in the premiere, you could be forgiven for the assumption she’d be filling the typical “mean girl” role: A snob who’s always trying to one-up our lead, Sutton Foster’s Liza, who joins Empirical Press as a marketing assistant under false pretenses.
In a high-stakes, glam industry story like this, and doubly so in a female-dominated industry or show setup, that lateral-level nastiness is as important as the Prada-wearing Devil up top: If there is, as Taylor Swift reminds us, a place in hell for women who don’t help other women, then the real secret is that hell’s right here on Earth.
…Or so we’re told, usually. While we see hints of humanity in Emily Blunt’s “Devil Wears Prada” character, and Becki Newton basically built a career off walking a similar balance in “Ugly Betty” — although even there, she’s beat in that department by Michael Urie’s Marc St. James, whose arc takes him much further over the course of the series — those are poignant exceptions that prove the rule:
Womanhood is a zero-sum game, there are only so many shots at that glass ceiling, women are crueler and more vicious in their ambition — and misogyny — than silly old men could ever be. It’s a Lipstick Jungle out there, ladies, and even every Housewife is Desperate.
What’s intense and wonderful about “Younger,” though, is how long it takes to let you off the hook: Every moment of compassion from Kelsey, every time she offers to help our hapless heroine get a foothold, is another chance for Kelsey — and the show — to pull the rug out, shock you, confirm your deepest fears and ancient rages about other women and what they are capable of. For episode upon episode:
Oh, so in this episode Kelsey is finally going to one-up Liza and embarrass her in a meeting…? Nope. This has to be headed for a drunken hookup with Liza’s boyfriend and lying about it, right? Nope. Oh my gosh, they’re going to have to fight for this client and one of them is going to get fired… Nope!
Maybe it’s a Rorschach test: Maybe some viewers took only a moment to gauge Duff’s charisma as Kelsey — her cheery strength and steely pragmatism; her willingness to push back on certain invisible-to-Liza feminist generational markers — and figured out right away that Kelsey would never be a villain. Those viewers are lucky, because they live in the world the show — all of us — desperately wants to exist.
But for the rest of us, the continual cascade of sweetness and surprise is the whole meal, as these attractive, ambitious young ladies keep falling into situations another show would use to pit them against each other… And then uses them to bring them closer and closer together. There is no manipulation in their mutual support, no “gotcha” moment for the rookie or reassuring-the-elderly trainwreck moment for the ingenue:
Wise Liza just wants her friend to survive her twenties, and wise Kelsey just wants to see her peer succeed. There will be conflict, there will even be times where — just as in all good shows — the amount they love each other becomes the problem, protecting one another blindly and stepping into potholes, but there is no monster at the end of the book. The shoe will never drop.
Half the time it feels like the shows we describe as “glossy” or “frothy” or, ugh, “guilty pleasures” — all of which mean “shows about women” — jump to woman-on-woman violence so easily is because it’s the easy way out: Because they can’t think of anything better, or didn’t stop to think about it at all. “Younger” has a built-in conflict machine, thanks to its concept — but even if it weren’t in that unique spot already, the quality and compassion of the show’s universe tells us it never would.
It’s a prototype, a proof-of-concept, for storytellers everywhere: How to make a show where the women don’t despise each other — and yet interesting things still, somehow, happen. (See also “Supergirl,” of course, and even “UnREAL,” which despite its nastiness never shows you women hating women without also showing the how, the why, and the ultimate reasons for it all.)
But that’s not the only thing that’s going on here: Not only is “Younger” better than that, but so is Kelsey. Because we’re also dealing with another set of stereotypes here, the Pumpkin Spice Latte, Participation Trophy, Working-From-Home Millennial White Girl.
All of which Kelsey is. A millennial, feminine, flawed, well-rounded character, who truly wants the best for her friends. Kelsey doesn’t just surprise you by not being awful, but by being delightful. Of all the extremely, almost shockingly likable women — and men! — the show gives us, Kelsey could easily be the biggest joke, the meanest girl, the Marnie (Alison Williams) from “Girls.” Instead, she is its heart: Liza’s guide through the wilds of the future.
Like the show, Hilary Duff is: Earnest, sweet and playful, with a heart of gold. Like Kelsey, she by all appearances: Works hard for her career, has zero interest in stumbling into scandal, and mostly wants to have fun. She appears to be a devoted mother, daughter and sister, and unlike almost any Disney kids of her era, has never betrayed or pushed back against her squeaky-clean image.
The biggest stories about Duff include such frontpage news as the fact that she is divorced, and um… has tattoos? Got veneers once? The naughtiest behavior she’s been able to come up with, regarding her teen years, is sneaking into clubs. There were some compromising photos with ex Mike Comrie, yes, but we don’t blame consenting adults for being humans, we blame the creeps that invade that privacy to which we are all entitled.
When Hilary played around with unconventional hair color in 2015 (rose gold, seapunk green, violet-grey), the response was a whole lot of eye-rolling: What, is she trying to be cool now? This woman of 29 is in a total lose-lose: Do anything remotely trendy or edgy, she’s an over-eager try-hard; never push the boundaries of the young blonde basic, that’s who she’ll always be.
We aren’t prepared for somebody this normal. She’s been too busy working hard at her career, and devoting herself to the roles she lands, to act out all over social media. That’s no shade on Lohan or anybody else; women in Hollywood get more than enough incentive, validation, outright financial benefit, from their public drama: But that’s exactly the double bind, isn’t it? Be derided, or be invisible — and hope your work speaks for itself.
Which brings us back to “Younger.” In the Season 3 premiere, Sep. 28, a Kondo-esque author asks the Empirical team to write down their top four priorities on a piece of paper. Liza’s immediate top two are daughter Caitlin and then her female friendships. Then comes her career, and dudes are at the bottom of her list.
“Younger” has its priorities in the exact same order: At its core, this is a show about female relationships and friendships, the way women support each other even through the most ridiculous circumstances. It’s also a show about the world of publishing and marketing and the women who love it. And then — and only then — is it a show about these women and their relationships with men. (Not to diss the men on this show; the majority are also warm, kind people who are just doing the best they can. But priorities aren’t a zero-sum either.)
“Younger’s” romances are pivoting in the third season: Kelsey is grieving her fiancé, the life they could have led, and his cruddiness. Liza’s torn between generations as usual, between her tattoo-artist hottie slacker and age-appropriate work-crush, and their boss Diana (Miriam Shor) is headed for a lonely meltdown. But the relationships between these women — the real love story — only deepen.
While Kelsey started the series as Liza’s mentor, she admires her friend and has let her in enough to now depend on her for advice and comfort. Despite being (secretly) 15 years older, Liza looks up to Kelsey, as the archetype she wants to emulate, and she does everything in her power to maintain an authentic bond with Kelsey, because — despite Liza’s deceptions — she cares about Kelsey as much as Kelsey cares about her.
Liza — and Sutton Foster deserves every bit of her constant acclaim, of course — is ostensibly the protagonist of “Younger.” But because of the show’s ambitions, and its willingness to meet both sides of this imaginary divide halfway, Kelsey is its heart, and increasingly its soul. She’s the future of Empirical, the face of the new career woman who wants it all and never had to plan for failure. Kelsey is unapologetic ambition, both personal and professional; she knows how to play the game and swim with sharks without letting it warp her, and always finds a way around, through, or over the stuff that stops most of us cold.
The show gives us the evolution of female friendship, graduated beyond petty “Mean Girls” attitude, enlightened with the knowledge that there truly is room at the table for all of us. If you were to say a character (or show) like this could never have existed before now, that’s probably true. But to say a character like this could only exist now, well: Then we’re right where we need to be.
“Younger” airs Wednesdays at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on TV Land.