When “Younger” premiered on TV Land in the spring of 2015, caution was the watchword: I work in publishing, so I was drawn to the workplace aspect of the show (like a lot of its target demo); it was created by Darren Star, who has earned some amount of goodwill with “Sex & the City” alone; it starred “Bunheads” breakout Sutton Foster, America’s best friend; and it featured Hilary Duff, a key preteen icon for a lot of us.
On the other hand, there’s no way of knowing how well Darren Star or Hilary Duff would have held up past the early ’00s, and the premise — a 40-year old divorcée (Sutton Foster’s Liza) pretends to be 26 for a job in publishing, gets into hijinks — felt icky at best, and sexist and ageist at worst.
With the show’s third season beginning (and a fourth already on its way), that initial interest has paid off. The show isn’t perfect — there is no such thing as a perfect show — but when it flops it flops grandly: The most notably off-kilter moment was a bizarre bestiality setup involving Matthew Morrison from “Glee,” graphically mounting a sheep.
The bruise it can’t stop pushing on is an exaggerated “Millennials” divide that would have you believe that anyone over 40 has never really heard of Facebook, and everyone under 30 thinks forty is old age. But even when it’s dorking out, the show is clever fun — two things not a lot of TV seems interested in pulling off lately.
The stakes of the premise are high enough to keep me curious — and “Younger” deserves all the credit in the world for sticking to its setup but keeping it somehow fresh — but the show is at its best when it’s not relying on the age stuff at all.
In the beginning all of Liza’s relationships felt fraught, carefully balanced to keep her secret, but now that they’ve had time to simmer and develop, beyond her kneejerk fears, they are increasingly grounded, and complex — and despite being initiated by misdirection, ring extremely true.
One of the show’s smartest moves is the continuing romantic relationship between Maggie (Debi Mazar), Liza’s roommate and longtime best friend, and Kelsey’s (Duff) best friend Lauren. First of all, Lauren is played by Molly Bernard — who had a very memorable cameo in “Transparent” Season 3 as a young Shelly Pfefferman — and has been a standout on “Younger” from day one.
Maggie and Lauren have the age difference — as Liza does with Josh (Nico Tortorella, always fantastic) — but in their case it’s never been hidden or covered up: The huge perilous shameful generation gap that defines Liza’s relationships is, when exposed to open air, nothing much to worry about.
Likewise, by revealing Liza’s ploy and age to Josh, the show got a season’s worth of hard-to-watch drama out of it — Josh, on the rare occasions he is sad, is very sad — but also gave itself the opportunity to level it all, and rebuild it from a more mature, realistic place.
The relationships at the heart of the show will always be Liza’s bonds with Kelsey — the younger, with-it professional — and Maggie — her artistic, horny contemporary — because they reflect the equally important parts of Liza herself, resulting in a four-way waltz that can be breathtaking to watch.
Liza plays concerned older sister to Kelsey and Maggie’s suddenly-single guinea pig, but just as often it’s Kelsey giving Liza advice — and not “how to use emoji” joke-Millennial advice, either: Hard-won, realistic, emotionally sound advice — or Liza stressing that Maggie’s brittle Gen X ironic front won’t leave room for a last-minute clutch save when she’s overwhelmed.
… but having said all that, Liza’s relationships with the two to three suitors in her life is an important part of the show, because they challenge her in ways those central sisterhood bonds can’t. So bringing affable Josh into the show’s premise defuses it at the same time it brings us as viewers into their relationship on a new, deeper level: Part of Liza’s emotional shadowboxing with herself is pretending that Josh is a fancy, lightweight, or otherwise disposable — but we, as viewers, don’t have the luxury of that particular illusion.
The narrative decision that’s most impressed me, however, was also the most absurd: The show’s enthusiastic embrace of deus ex machina in the form of Thad’s (Dan Amboyer) death. The platonic ideal of a douchebag and Kelsey’s cheating fiancé, Thad blackmails Liza through much of Season 2 until he is struck by random construction materials, right in front of her, during a final showdown.
While it was ridiculous and oddly satisfying at the time, what makes it retroactively worth it is seeing just how much drama, development and exploration the fallout of this accident offers Kelsey. It’s a relief to see him die — Kelsey is free of his garbage ways, and Liza is free of his menace — but the questions it brings up for Kelsey are just the opposite.
She didn’t want to marry him, necessarily, but she also wants to be married, but she doesn’t want his creepy twin brother Chad (Amboyer), but she does want the laptop her fiancé left behind, and so on. Much like dropping the bomb on Josh, a seemingly premise-dictated moment leads to stronger, more mature connections and conversations between the people we’ve grown to love.
And finally, there’s the “situation” in this sitcom: Empirical, the fictional publishing house where the strongest characters work, provides a lot of comedy with a soft author-of-the-week setup, usually ripped from the headlines, “Law & Order” style. “Younger” treads a bit on that “Gilmore Girls” turf, a vanishingly rare piece of real estate, on which viewers are expected to have read a few books and pay NPR-slight attention to current events in the publishing world.
For someone who works in publishing, most of these feel true to life enough to relate, but outlandish enough to be hilarious– as in the Season 3 premiere, when a Marie Kondo type puts the whole editorial team through an exercise from her book: The polite reluctance of everyone involved sent me right back to some editorial meetings of my own, but the dialogue would have cracked me up anyway.
We’re still learning the rhythm of this third season, but we’ve left the cautiousness behind: It’s safe to be earnestly excited about watching a funny, emotional show that trusts itself enough to always do what’s best for the story, the characters and the publishing world it lovingly mocks — and has one of the best ensembles, both onscreen and on the page, in a very long time.
And let’s just agree to forget Mr. Schue and the sheep altogether.
“Younger” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on TV Land.