How Celebrating Female Friendship Helped TV Land’s ‘Younger’ Find Its Footing

youngerYounger is a show with an improbable premise that has somehow become improbably good. When the series first premiered, I was less than enthusiastic about it — not only did it seem like a poor attempt by TV Land to become more “relevant” and “hip” but the first three episodes felt like a master class in faux-edgy humor, ridiculous buzzwords, and millennial pandering. Yet the charm of Sutton Foster and my natural curiosity meant that I kept up with the program, secretly watching it without telling anyone (see: not tweeting about it).

As the first season went on, Younger became a stronger program, more confident in itself and settling into just the right mix of ridiculousness and warmth. Sure, the premise — Sutton Foster plays Liza, a 40-year-old woman who lies about her age and tells everyone she’s 26 in order to get a job at a publishing company — is still laughable, but the series found a way to work with it and to use that premise to boost smarter humor than the average “Liza doesn’t know how to use Twitter!” jokes that plagued the earlier episodes.

What has really worked is Younger’s commitment to celebrating relationships between women: strong, non-competitive friendships between women, employer/employee (and coworker) relationships between the women at Empirical Press, mother/daughter relationship between Liza and her college-aged daughter, Caitlin, who is unaware of her mother’s secret, and even romantic relationships between women (Liza’s best friend Maggie, played by Debi Mazar, is an out lesbian). By putting these relationships first, and having the original premise bleed into them rather than doing the opposite, Younger found a way to turn the first season into a delightfully enjoyable program. Its second season, which ended this week, doubled down on these relationships (and added quite a few interesting and juicy dilemmas), turning Younger from a secret pleasure to a series I just want to keep talking about.

Throughout this second season, Younger threw multiple obstacles at Liza. Caitlin returned home, curious about what exactly her mother does for a living. Liza’s much-younger boyfriend Josh started to feel the pressure of keeping Liza’s secret, especially when his band suddenly finds fame and he realizes he can’t gush about his girlfriend to the reporter profiling him. Add that to the couple’s many problems — the age difference, the conflicting interests, the secrets and lies, the inability to be just a normal couple in public, the awkwardness of lying to your girlfriend’s bosses/coworkers, the ticking clock that won’t shut up, and the fact that Josh (unknowingly) tattooed Liza’s daughter etc. etc. — and the two finally split mid-season, with Josh ending up dating a woman his own age. Then, of course, there was work. Ignoring the complete implausibility of Kelsey and Liza working on their own millennial imprint, the duo have trouble finding and keeping their first author, a booze-soaked diva, and the deal goes sour. Attempt number two resulted in Liza walking in on a potential author (played by Matthew Morrison) er, romancing a sheep. Then there is her discouraging (but secretly encouraging) boss, the creepy author of a Game of Thrones-like series who insists Liza dresses in a skimpy costume, and being blackmailed by another author who threatens to reveal Liza’s age.

And therein where we get to Younger’s inherent problem: Finding ways for Liza to keep her secret while also keeping the tension that she’s bound to blow it at any second. The biggest roadblock came to a head in season two’s penultimate episode, as Kelsey’s cheating fiance threatened to reveal Liza’s real age — only to get killed by a plummeting metal beam (as if walking around NYC streets weren’t already a terrible experience). This was such a bizarre, out-of-nowhere twist for a show that is certainly more sitcom than soap opera, but it was a shock that actually worked. Younger knows that it shouldn’t drag out a blackmail plot because it’ll run the risk of getting stale. Rather, they should kill it — literally.

What this means is that Younger got a chance to return to its strong point — relationships — in the season two finale, “No Weddings & a Funeral.” Sure, we get a cliffhanger about Liza caught between two guys (one age-appropriate and one her younger ex) but those moments fade into the background to allow the relationships between women to shine. Liza is willing to give up absolutely everything in order to make things better for Kelsey, including the job that she loves and has worked so hard for. She’s then willing to take a huge step down from publishing and work retail, selling pants to creepy men, to ensure that she can help take care of her daughter’s needs. Of course, everything goes back to status quo as Liza returns to Empirical after Kelsey and Diana both want — and need — her to return, because such is the nature of simplistic sitcom mechanics. Yet by the end, it’s made these strong relationships even stronger, setting up season three of Younger to not just be a good TV Land show, but a great sitcom in general.

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