What would you do if you walked into a Brooklyn bar and saw Hilary Duff sitting there knitting?
Thanks to the success of the TV Land series Younger, it’s a very real possibility.
“I’m pissed about it,” Duff jokes, tongue in cheek, about the show’s return for a second season, meaning more time in New York and less in Los Angeles, where she became a child star as the lead in Disney Channel’s Lizzie Maguire and, more recently, a mom.
“I already discussed this with you: You’re full Brooklyn now,” Duff’s Younger co-star Miriam Shor, sitting to her left on the comedy’s Silvercup Studios set, says. “You knit at a bar. You’ve succumbed. You’re full Brooklyn.”
“I surrendered,” Duff admits. “I was fighting against it last year. Now I’ve fully given in.”
In many ways so have we, to a show that defied expectations to become of TV’s most underrated critical gems and returns for an even stronger Season Two Wednesday night—despite arriving last year under circumstances that tend to foster skepticism.
From Sex and the City creator Darren Starr, Younger was meant to help usher in a new era for TV Land, which was transitioning from nostalgic I Love Lucy reruns and throwback sitcoms like Hot in Cleveland to edgier, more current fare you might expect from the creator of an HBO comedy that once had four single New Yorkers in a taxi cab discussing the merits of anal sex.
A far cry from Mr. Ed reruns.
The show’s high concept also seemed too restrictive to maintain. A recently divorced 40-year-old woman named Liza (Broadway vet Sutton Foster) struggles to return to the workforce after 15 years as a stay-at-a-home mom. When she gets mistaken at a bar for a 20-something, she sees it as a sign.
After a flirty makeover from best friend Maggie (Entourage’s Debi Mazar) she begins living her life as a 26-year-old, eventually landing a job at a publishing house, hob-knobbing with fellow millennials, and falling in love with a tattoo artist young enough to be her son (Josh, played by Nico Tortorella).
“I never wanted this to be a show where she was always going to be lying about her age and every episode was going to be like, ‘Oh my god, that was such a close call!’” Starr says, echoing the concerns of critics who feared a one-joke premise. “That’s a little bit like Gilligan’s Island to me.”
What the show did end up being a little bit like, however, was Sex and the City, perhaps not surprising considering Starr’s involvement, as well as the show’s legendary costumer Patricia Fields.
Call something an heir to that iconic series and draw not just the aforementioned skepticism, but also risk the ire of the passionate worshippers of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, Charlotte, and their Manolos.
Yet there’s the same uncanny ear for the kind of current, punny dialogue that turned Carrie “Couldn’t Help But Wonder…” Bradshaw into a hero and a meme, four strong and fiercely different women, and a depiction of dating that is both brutally blunt and romantic—all dressed in a wardrobe and world that’s just a little more fabulous than our own.
“We elevate without making it unrealistic,” Fields says. “Just a little elevation: Get up on your high heels, don’t go fly away.”
“I think at its core, Sex and the City was just trying to be a frank and honest look at relationships, and those things don’t really change,” Starr says. How people are meeting each other is changing and that’s certainly reflected in Younger, which has characters swiping left on dating apps and staring at iPhones waiting for texts instead of twiddling thumbs while staring at the phone on the nightstand.
“Sex and the City was about an independent woman who was going to live her life and not define it by marriage, but was still romantic,” he says. “This is a show about a woman who is trying to reinvent herself and wants to reconnect with that youthful romanticism and see if she’s still got it.”
In other words: more stories about relationships and dating, but from a different perspective—one that incorporates topics like feminism and aging, and what that means.
It’s that bit that critics seem to be responding to.
The first season has a 97 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the San Francisco Chronicle went so far as to say, “As funny as it is, it’s actually more mature than the writing on Sex and the City.”
And fans seem to be responding in the same way.
Foster, perched on a sofa on the studio set that doubles as the jealousy-inducing loft Liza shares with Maggie, laughs while recalling a recent accosting during spin class by a woman who watches Younger with her daughter and felt the need to share the news—along with some residual sweat.
Then there was the recent trip to Treat House, a Rice Krispies show on the Upper West Side—“I know, what is this place?”—that had the guy behind the counter gasping. “You’re on Younger!” Anecdotally, at least, the show seems to be mission accomplished for TV Land, crossing generational and gender divides with fans.
Paste magazine even said, “Younger feels like it belongs on a different network. And that’s probably a great thing for TV Land.”
A resounding talking point for Season One was Foster’s performance as Liza, not just because of the gawky charm she brings to the role but because of how believably the 41-year-old passes for a 26-year-old on the show.
It made for an unique experience for the Tony Award-winner, who despite a critically hailed turn on the short-lived ABC Family series Bunheads, had not endured the kind of invasive and exhaustive press tour like the one for Younger, which routinely had her being grilled with invasive questions about her age and appearance—forced therapy by way of journalists.
“It was definitely interesting to navigate because I hadn’t really thought about any of those things,” Foster says. “I’d be asked about my beauty regime and I’m like, ‘I don’t really have one!”
She laughs for a minute, magically looking, like Liza, both youthful and carefree, and wise and seasoned at the same time.
“So I’d just make things up to try to sound relevant or like I knew what I was talking about,” she continues. “And with my getting older, I’ve never thought about it, or felt those things before, or even looked at myself in the mirror and gone, ‘Oh, wow, I am changing and getting older. Am I relevant? Well, I have a career…”
The psychoanalyzing mirrors a typical episode of Younger, which has Liza being forced to constantly consider her age while trying to appear two decades younger, all while feverishly trying to keep the House of Cards her lie has built from collapsing completely.
Complicating things, though starting to ease Liza’s conscience, in Season Two: the secret’s out.
At the end of Younger’s first season, Liza finally comes clean to Josh, the young stud she’s been dating but who thinks she’s 26.
It was necessary to avoid, as Starr said, the Gilligan’s Island curse. But watching Josh’s hurt reaction at the betrayal, you suddenly realize that this heroine you’ve been rooting for to keep up this ruse is actually doing a terrible thing to people.
“I think because it’s Sutton Foster and she’s so winning, you have this character that on the surface you really love and just assume she would always be doing the right thing,” says Starr. The natural charisma and likability make the Sarah Jessica Parker and Carrie Bradshaw comparisons abundantly valid. “You want them to succeed, but they’re going to make mistakes.”
When Josh discovers that Liza was lying, “the ramifications are real,” he says. It also opens more opportunity to explore not only their dynamic, but dig deeper into the strong bench of supporting characters that operate around them.
There’s Mazar’s Maggie, who previously had been the only other one to know about Liza’s deceit—because she helped facilitate it. As the web spins out of control, its Maggie who has to help Liza untangle herself from it.
Mazar was just coming off Entourage—a “very testosterone-driven show,” she says—when she signed on for Younger, wooed by its estrogen. “I usually play the power bitch and here I get to play a regular woman,” she says. “She’s an artist. She’s gay. She doesn’t have to be Debi Mazar. I get to deconstruct me.”
Liza’s work life is ruled by Duff’s Kelsey, an assistant quickly rising up the ranks at the publishing house who shows Liza the ropes, and Diana, the bitch-in-heels boss who both mentors and makes Liza’s life miserable.
Think Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly. “Listen, anytime you want to compare me to Meryl Streep, you can go ahead and jot that down,” Shor laughs.
Both Kelsey and Diana are stock types—Kelsey the vapid millennial and Diana, again, Miranda Priestly—made richer by Duff and Shor’s strong performances, which get shaded even more as Season Two unravels.
And though they, thanks to playing characters their own age, haven’t been assaulted with as many questions about aging as Foster, both say starring in Younger has had them questioning their own feelings about getting older.
“Everyone keeps telling me 30 is supposed to be the best age,” Duff says. “I’m not quite there yet, but I’m excited. I think people take you seriously when you’re 30.”
“I wonder if you take yourself more seriously when you’re 30,” Shor agrees. “You don’t give yourself some sort of date: ‘When I’m 30 then I’ll have to make these important choices.’” Then, turning to Duff: “But I feel like you’ve made a lot of important choices in your life that I feel like a lot of people in their twenties haven’t gotten to yet.”
“But what if that screwed up the whole system?!” Duff shrieks in response. “I’ll be 30 and not be able to make any choices.”
It provokes an interesting question that reinforces the idea that Younger is deeper than a charming sitcom about dating may superficially seem. In the show, Liza lies about her age—yes, that’s not great—but in doing so she ends up living a life that makes her happier than she’s been in years, decades even.
Without explicitly endorsing that someone in their forties pretend to be 15 years younger, Younger suggests there may actually be something to learn by embracing, at least, behaviors, personalities, and attitudes from that part of a person’s life.
“Making brave choices or choices that scare you, I think you do that a lot more when you’re younger because…” Shor says, before Duff interrupts: “You can fuck up.”
“Exactly, you can be forgiven,” Shor continues.
Of course, embodying the spirit of a 20-year-old is one thing. Wishing to go back is another.
“It is interesting playing this character, who gets to dress really cool,” Foster says. “We get to really cool places and shoot in really awesome spots. We have fake parties that are really fun.”
“Then the 40-year-old in me is like, ‘I’m exhausted. I just want my couch and my 30 Rock reruns and my bottle of wine,’” she says. “I don’t have a desire to go back to my twenties.”