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We Get Old, but TV Land Gets ‘Younger’

The oldies network has a fun hit on its hands

TV Land
TV Land

Younger is not the first show you’ll think of when asked to name a lighthearted comedy about female friendship in New York City. It’s not even the first show you’ll think of when asked to name a lighthearted comedy about female friendship in New York City created by Darren Star. And it’s sure as hell not the first show you’ll think of when asked to name a show starring Hillary Duff.

But Younger, now in its third season, is content to come in second. In that regard, it’s the perfect flagship show for TV Land, a network whose reboot has lost its new-car smell but found its groove.

That’s on purpose. You might know TV Land as the place to find dependable reruns when you’re trying to numb your brain with nostalgia at 3 a.m., and it’s still that — the main site lists Roseanne and King of Queens right next to its original programming. But like so many channels struggling to set themselves apart these days, TV Land has turned to home-growing its product instead of just importing it. Think of TBS, another lesser-known network that’s sought to rebuild itself around a certain strain of comedy. TV Land is aiming … you know, younger. But where TBS has aimed for edginess under the watchful eye of Kevin Reilly (an executive known for bold moves like attempting to scrap the mighty institution of pilot season) with the likes of Angie Tribeca and Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, TV Land is simply updating its core appeal for a different demographic.

That started in 2010 with the smart transitional step of anchoring new shows (Hot in Cleveland, Happily Divorced) with classic sitcom stars (Betty White, Fran Drescher) — the kind who’d show up on the channel anyway, only now in an updated vehicle. Younger was the first series without that safety net; Sutton Foster’s last leading role was on Bunheads, the gone-too-soon show from Amy Sherman-Palladino. Since then, TV Land has added the well-liked, short-lived Jim Gaffigan Show and the self-explanatory Teachers. (It’s about teachers.) And the gamble has paid off. Younger’s steadily climbing ratings peaked with last season’s finale. It’s also got the youngest average audience on the channel by a jaw-dropping 12 years, with the healthy DVR numbers to show it. The youth love their TiVo, though in TV Land’s case, “youth” is still relative: Younger’s audience hovers around 46.

Like the rest (and best) of its genre — calming, snackable, and best viewed from a couch at precisely 10 p.m., preferably while wearing sweatpants — Younger requires a total suspension of disbelief to enjoy. Initiates, prepare yourselves: In the world of Younger, a 40-year-old mother named Liza Miller (Foster) can plausibly respond to her very recent divorce by posing as a 26-year-old, landing a glamorous and lucrative gig as a book publicist’s overworked assistant, and seamlessly integrating back into professional 20-something city life, complete with a work BFF (Duff) and a tattoo-artist boyfriend (Nico Tortorella). It’s all so she can support her college-aged daughter (on that assistant’s salary), you see!

A sophisticated exploration of aging and generational identity this is not, but nor is it Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X: Basic Cable Edition. Younger keeps things intentionally sweet and simple, dealing with types as broad and reductive as any escapist sitcom — the Friends had their rent-controlled West Village palaces, and Liza has her spacious Williamsburg loft, shared with a longtime friend who’s Italian and an artist. (Two separate Brooklyn stereotypes, one stone!) Younger’s washboard-playing millennial cutouts work because they’re clearly fictional characters, not an alternate reality crafted by the editors of the New York Times Style section. This isn’t a proclamation from our paper of record one could plausibly take for someone’s actual life; it’s a batch of caricatures intended to be taken at face value. Like Liza’s new social circle, if you don’t squint too hard, you won’t find much to fault.

Younger certainly has teeth, though it reserves most of its venom for hyperspecific book industry jokes. Last week’s premiere saw a Marie Kondo clone shower the Empire Press crew with various platitudes and euphemisms for “throw away your extra crap”; before that, George R.R. Martin was reimagined as a skeevy sexual harasser, and a charming outdoorsman turned out to be a little too close with his flock of sheep. The whole thing might be Documentary Now–level niche if it weren’t so larger-than-life — Younger’s audience may hold a disproportionate number of junior editors, but it’s certainly not limited to them. It’s also aware of and sometimes pushes at the absurdity of its own premise; last season’s finale saw a shocking character death delivered with a sight gag straight out of Looney Tunes. But Younger never edges into the meta or even the caustic. The winks are there just to keep us from balking at its fundamental sunniness.

Basically, Younger is nearly as committed to keeping the sailing smooth as a late-era network hit, though it has to try considerably harder, and do way more narrative backflips, to maintain that stasis. A high concept grabs our attention; a low-demand execution keeps us coming back. It’s a balancing act that Younger is uniquely well equipped to handle: If you weren’t OK with the gaping plot holes required to keep this thing going, you wouldn’t be watching in the first place. And for now Younger remains TV Land’s best and biggest hit, a fact that’s both improbable and oddly poetic. Just look at the synopsis. A middle-aged, firmly uncool mom repackages herself as a trendy youngster? TV Land isn’t just aiming to follow up on Younger. It’s also trying to live it.