'Younger' began as a millennial gag. Bridging the generation gap made it a classic

Robert Lloyd
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Sutton Foster attends the "Younger" season 5 premiere party in 2018 at Cecconi Dumbo in New York City. The seventh and final season of the series is available starting this weekend on Hulu and Paramount+.

A year and a half after the end of its sixth season, "Younger" returns this week to conclude its business with a seventh on Hulu and Paramount+. The series, which premiered on TV Land in 2015, was that network's first single-camera situation comedy and is its last surviving original production. Created by Darren Star ("Sex and the City," earlier, "Emily in Paris," later) and based on a novel by Pamela Redmond Satran, it stars Sutton Foster as Liza, a 40-year-old divorcée who passes herself off as 26 to get a job at Empirical Press, restarting the career in publishing she left decades earlier as a young mother.

Like "Sex and the City," "Younger" is built mainly around its women: Liza; Maggie (Debi Mazar), Liza's artist friend and series-long roommate, who bought in Brooklyn before the hipsters arrived; Diana (Miriam Shor), Empirical's head of marketing; and Kelsey (Hilary Duff), actually young, who begins the series as a junior editor, gets her own imprint, called Millennial, in Season 2, and will be in and out of even more powerful positions as the series goes along. (Even as Liza assumes weightier responsibilities, she will still be getting Diana's coffee.) And there is Kelsey's friend Lauren (Molly Bernard), who will move from peripheral comic support to a more central, still comic role as the series progresses.

But they are more emotionally and practically entangled than the "Sex and the City" women; they work together or live together, and, though romantic involvements will drive much of the drama (and comedy), what matters most is the temperature of the women's relationships; there are times when any two of them will be closer or farther apart, on account of real or perceived betrayals or misplaced pride, but they will always come back together. The series runs on these moments of recognition and reconciliation. Liza tells Kelsey at one point that if she has to pick between love interest Charles (Peter Hermann) and Kelsey, she picks her.

That most of the main characters are over 40 points to where the series' point of view largely lies, generationally. Star was in his mid-50s when he created the show; Foster, a Tony-winning musical comedy star who previously headlined Amy Sherman-Palladino's underappreciated "Bunheads," turned 40 two weeks before it premiered. And though Duff was in her late 20s, she'd been acting since the 1990s; "Lizzie McGuire," the Disney Channel teencom that made her famous, preceded "Younger" by 14 years. (It was recently nearly rebooted.) So apart from Mazar, who has been a regular or recurring member of several television series running back into the 20th century, including her own short-lived "Temporarily Yours," whatever TV Land-brand nostalgia value "Younger" possessed at launch was, paradoxically, due to the kid.

The series does lean a little hard at first into gags about intergenerational mutual incomprehension and Liza almost blowing her cover by forgetting not to act her age. Lies and their fallout are of course at the very core of situation comedy. A recurring motif is that, as she is about to reveal the truth to someone, something happens that forces or allows her to put it off; in one instance, when Kelsey's bad boyfriend Thad (Dan Amboyer), who has learned her secret, is taken out by a falling girder, as in a cartoon; almost literally a deus ex machina. (Kelsey will have a number of unconvincing relationships, including one we are meant to take most seriously, with her professional nemesis Zane, played by Charles Michael Davis; work and Liza are what really matter in her world.)

Liza is astonishingly ignorant of the rites and rituals and trivia of youth culture, but the joke inside that running joke is that she's no worse off for it. Notwithstanding her turn-back-time adventuring, she's a stand-in for the viewer, older or younger, who might feel similarly bemused by new fads and trends, by adult dodgeball and breadfacing, which is not the only thing I needed to look up to ascertain whether it was real. (Oh, it is.) The teen tech titan (Noah Robbins) who in Season 3 looks to invest in Empirical — which is always in trouble and always fine — is a self-important boob whose vision of the digital future and his place in it, likely or not, are largely ridiculed. This is a show, after all, about old media, about books and people who love them.

"Younger" takes what could be a fluffy fantasy and turns it into something special on the strength of good writing and casually great performances: It comes alive in reaction shots, the spaces between dialogue when thoughts are being processed, often the ones that close a scene, a private expression from a character after others have walked off, or the faces of friends or lovers, invisible to one another, in an embrace. (Foster is especially subtle, but everyone is good.) That it's a saucy soap is certainly a cornerstone of its appeal — you can't go long before one character or another is having sex or talking about it — but it's also a satire of the literary (and pop-literary) world that, amid dropping real names for veracity, takes off in a thinly disguised way on George L.L. Martin, Barbara Cartland, Marie Kondo and Karl Ove Knausgård, among many others.

As to the soapy part, Liza's relationship with Josh (Nico Tortorella), a 26-year-old tattoo artist and sometime washboard player, begins almost immediately: The show's premise is set when, making conversation in a bar, he mistakes her for someone his age, which leads to Maggie's suggestion that she pass herself off as younger to get herself a job. Toward the end of the first season, the age-appropriate Charles, who runs Empirical, hoves into view and a romantic triangle comes into focus.

And though Charles would seem to have the advantage in everything but youth, Foster and Tortorella do a good job of making their mutual affection feel substantial, even if they never seem to have much to talk about apart from what or how they're doing at any moment, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that Liza's romantic fate remained an open question in the writers' room through multiple seasons. In any case, you are invited to think so; she is often on the outs with Josh or Charles — and sometimes both, which makes room for flirtations and flings and also moments of perspective.

What gets Liza hired originally is that when Diana asks what she thinks makes her special, Liza answers, "I'm a grown-up. I don't think I'm special." It's her maturity that makes her attractive and valuable; it's what makes Charles' initial interest in her less creepy, if still a matter for HR. (The show does get around to addressing this, with a seminar.) He sees the 40-year-old inside the supposed 26-year-old.

Diana is also interested in Charles — pointlessly, the viewer knows — but is put through a number of somewhat satisfying but clearly doomed relationships with Obviously Wrong Guys until the right one finally comes along in the unlikely shape of a plumber (Chris Tardio), though a handsome, cultured, patient one. Shor's performance is in many ways series' the most moving — we are primed for Liza and Maggie and Kelsey to succeed in some way or another, but Diana is the kind of character many series would be satisfied to portray as a villain or a fool and mock or punish or just leave hanging.

Shor seamlessly integrates Diana's difficult work persona with her more vulnerable after-hours character. Indeed, she makes them inseparable; there are no internal contradictions with Diana, only layers; when she busts out show tunes at a New York piano bar or, with Martha Plimpton as a book world rival, performs "Wilkommen" from "Cabaret" at a book fair, it makes perfect sense. It's not in the least funny; indeed, it's quite beautiful.

As to the new season, and without going into details, the game board will again be turned over, the cards thrown in the air to put relationships out of joint, interfere with plans, raise questions. Things were in pretty good shape for our heroes at the end of Season 6, which ended with the cast dancing to "We Are Family" at Diana's wedding, as good a series summary as one could ask for; an extra episode or two would have provided all the closure the series needed. But there is some way to travel yet.

COVID-19 is not part of the story — indeed, the chronology of the show, which covers about three years, ends before the pandemic begins. But there are signs that the new season was produced under its limitations. Many hallmarks of the show — the busy streets, the packed bars, the book fairs and Comic-Cons, the not entirely incidental Big City Guidebook "Younger" has offered from the beginning — are missing. In one scene, a Greta Thunberg-esque climate crusader, who has been established as world-famous, holds a rally in a park attended by only about 20 people. We are outside a lot.

More crucial, Shor and Davis are absent (or all but) from these new episodes. The bright side, if you want to look at it, is that Diana's happy marriage will not be sacrificed to the narrative need to make trouble, with the added bonus that it embeds Lauren, who had already begun to take Diana as a model and is now occupying her office, firmly into central action. It feels like a sort of reward for Bernard and a sign that Lauren is growing not merely old but up. It's the path they're all on.

"We're not the young kids on the block anymore," Kelsey says at Lauren's 30th birthday party, in the first episode of the new season. (It has earlier been pointed out to her, by a much older person, that millennial already sounds dated.) "I'm not sure what defines me now."

But the viewer knows. Characters here are forever being made to choose. Should they stay or should they go? Pass or publish? Marry or not? Although "Younger" celebrates breaking free from old patterns, it is at the same time, from the beginning and over the long haul, about finding a place, somewhere where the the back and forth, the looking and losing, cease. Nothing in its DNA as a generous comedy that celebrates love and loyalty would suggest that the final season will change that trajectory.