Younger and the Age of Agelessness

The perky sitcom, now entering its second season on TV Land, embodies the current confusion about what it means to be an adult.

TV Land

The basic premise of Younger, the TV Land dramedy now entering its second season, is this: Liza Miller (Sutton Foster) is a 40-year-old New Jersey housewife who, after her husband cheated on her and gambled away their savings, is in desperate need of a fresh start. Newly divorced (see above), and with her college-aged daughter away on a semester in India, Liza ends up moving in with her friend Maggie (Debi Mazar), an artist, in Brooklyn. She looks for a job in publishing, the industry she loved and thrived in before she had her kid. The problem: In the estimation of 20-something hiring managers, Liza is too old for the entry-level-ish jobs she’s applying for, but too inexperienced for the roles that would traditionally suit someone of her age.

Prospects for her self-reinvention look pretty dire until Liza happens upon a way out of her catch-22: She’ll pretend to be 26.

Hilarity, and confusion, and many, many lies, ensue. Liza, youth-overed with the help of blond highlights and sassy nail polish and a newly normcored wardrobe, gets a job as an assistant to a Miranda Priestly-esque marketing executive (Miriam Shor) at Manhattan’s Empirical Press. She befriends Kelsey (Hilary Duff), an editor and a rising star at the firm, who takes Liza under her wing. (“We’re gonna be 26-year-old bosses!” Kelsey is fond of enthusing.) She meets a guy—Josh (Nico Tortorella), a tattoo artist—who assumes that she, like he, is in her 20s. Liza doesn’t correct him. They start dating.

So, yes. Pygmalion, pretty much. And also My Fair Lady, only with ‘Enry ‘Iggins’s voice coaching replaced by Maggie’s advice on the proper use of illuminating foundation. And also Cinderella, only with the fantasy in question being not princessery, but that even more sought-after thing: extended youth. And also Pretty Woman, and She’s All That, and Mean Girls, and Clueless, and The Princess Diaries, the small difference being that the makeover in this case concerns the heroine’s age instead of her social standing.

Which is all to say that Younger, a fairy tale fit for basic cable, is a treacly confection of a show: witty but not wise, delightful but not deep. And yet—like its creator Darren Star’s previous exploration of age and sexuality and identity in a tumultuous time, Sex and the City—it offers, almost in spite of itself, deep insights into the culture of the moment. Because, for Liza, and for the age-obsessed universe she inhabits, youth is social standing. And her show, fittingly, presents youth at large as a kind of social class unto itself. Younger treats the typical categories of time’s effect on identity—“20-something,” “middle-aged,” “of a certain age,” etc.—as social situations rather than biological edicts. In Younger’s estimation, age is an outfit that one can don and abandon at will.

With all that, under its chirpy, soap-operatic veneer, Younger makes an argument that manages to be both deeply subversive and broadly reflective of the culture at large: Youth, it suggests, is not a biological reality—or even a stage of life—so much as it is a state of mind. It is a choice. Here is every Oil of Olay ad ever, in the form of a TV Land sitcom. Here is the Aaliyah hypothesis, reinterpreted for a time that is bringing a new fluidity to gender and adulthood and identity itself: Age, socially, ain’t nothing but a number.

Is that posture liberating, or gross? Is Younger taking a brave stand against a culture that so often treats middle-aged women as socially and sexually less-than—or is it, backhandedly, endorsing those unsavory assumptions?

Both, really. Younger, in its way, is part of a long tradition of literature that explores the phenomenon sometimes, by way of the 1929 novel, shorthanded as “passing”: self-camouflage so as to encompass another race or gender or social class than the one someone has been born into. It’s literature that has tended to tap into the deepest anxieties of its respective ages, whether gender (Twelfth Night, Orlando) or social class (Vanity Fair, The Great Gatsby) or race (Black Like Me, The Human Stain). It’s literature, too, that has tended to bring eloquence to its explorations of the broad, interrelated, and often fraught notions that contribute to “identity”: permission and prohibition, biological fact and social construct.

Younger, in that vein, is less concerned about the practical mechanisms of Liza’s deception—her makeover is done and finished in the series’s first episode—than it is with the consequences. What it cares about, deeply, are the permissions that come with her transformation. Can Liza buy her way—via clothes and makeup and hair highlights—into youth? Can she lie herself into a different age?

Take it out a little further, and the question becomes: Can one, in general, choose one’s identity?

It’s no accident that TV Land’s ads for Younger’s second season feature the distinctive back beats of Fleetwood Mac’s Little Lies”; the show repeatedly makes a point of emphasizing the awkward fact that its protagonist is, at her core, deceiving the people she most loves and respects. (“You’re kind of a lunatic, aren’t you?” Josh, the duped boyfriend, asks her early on in the show’s second season.) Liza’s big secret may provide the narrative tension of the show; it also, however, provides the moral tension. Is Liza, wrapped ever-more-tightly in her deceptions as the show goes on, closer to her vague namesake, Eliza Doolittle, or to her fellow bad-breaker, Walter White? Is she a heroine, or an anti-heroine? What matters more—the fact that Liza is faking it, or the fact that she is, in the process, making it?

Younger, for the most part, walks a careful line between empathizing with Liza and judging her. The show makes a point of placing Liza’s lies in context—and not just in that of the show’s thinly fictionalized New York. It’s been compared, in critical reviews of its first season, to other works of fantastical age-switching: Big, 13 Going on 30, Freaky Friday, and their ilk. And the show is, in its way, an instance of time-travel made personal. The maybe-more-apt comparison, though, is to Sex and the City. And to Cougar Town, Sex and the City’s suburbanized follow-up. And to Hot in Cleveland. To shows that concern themselves with the bland truism that youth is wasted on the young, but that also fight back against the argument—made by Hollywood and literature and the job market and the marketing messages of beauty products the world over—that middle age is a synonym for defeat. Shows that counter the various indignities of the culture’s treatment of older women and present them, as Samantha Jones would say, as fabulous. Not in spite of their age, but because of it.

Younger is airing during an age of deep anxiety about age itself. The show comes at a time that’s given rise to a new phase of life—emerging adulthood—and that’s found many Americans delaying the traditional markers of adulthood: marriage, kids, graduating from a Craigslist-procured couch to an IKEA-bought one. It comes during a time that finds generations collapsing into one another. It comes, too, during a time of technological progress that has allowed the mathematics of age to be disentangled from the appearance of it: If you can afford it, you can get Botox. You can buy La Mer moisturizer. You can Sephora your way into plump, dewy skin—the kind of skin that might let you, as a 40-year-old, pass for 26.

Younger takes all of these discrete phenomena and distills them down to their essence: It wonders, aloud, what happens to age—that number, that phase, that crucial component of identity—within a culture that is fighting, aggressively, against age’s power. It wonders that, in particular, on behalf of women. This is a time that is reveling in, and negotiating around, the mutability of identity; where does age fit into that? What, actually, does it mean right now to be of a certain age?

Younger doesn’t fully answer those questions. Or, more specifically, it hasn’t yet answered those questions. What is does do, though, is to make a provocative argument: that there is social age, and there is biological age, and those are two separate propositions. It suggests that the Liza who is 40-going-on-26 is somehow a truer version of Liza than the 40-going-on-41. The woman who puts the “lies” in “Liza” is, after all, also the woman who is really, really good at her job. She genuinely likes and respects Kelsey, her co-worker and friend. She has undeniable chemistry with Josh. She may even love him.

Where does that leave everything? Is Liza in the right, or the wrong? Is her relationship with Josh sweet, or icky? What does her biological age mean for her social one?

Which are more questions that Younger leaves unanswered. The show—a little bit My Fair Lady, a little bit Sex and the City, a little bit Breaking Bad—revels in its ambiguities. Which makes it perfectly fit for an age that is no longer quite sure what adulthood means, what womanhood means, what growing up means. Younger is a classic coming-of-age tale; it’s just that the age its star is coming into happens to be, yes, younger than her years.