TV Land’s Younger is a lighthearted comedy about a heavy truth. When fortysomething Liza Miller (played by Sutton Foster) tries to re-enter the workforce after a divorce and a stint at stay-at-home motherhood, she finds herself locked out of the publishing industry, where she had once been a rising star. With her only kid away at college, Liza gets a job as an assistant by passing as a woman young enough to be her daughter. The show offers plenty of frothy fantasies: a hot tattoo-artist boyfriend with a heart of gold, a hip designer wardrobe acquired on the cheap, an eye cream that can wipe 15 years off a woman’s face. But Younger is at its most moving and resonant when it balances its fizzy charms with earnest critiques.
That balancing act made Younger’s fourth season first-rate television (even if it was hardly recognized as such), and its fifth season—the current one—a worthy follow-up. It’s no surprise why. Season 4 began with Liza confessing her secret to her best work friend Kelsey (Hilary Duff) and movingly explored the emotional ramifications thereof. A betrayed Kelsey initially attempted to prevent Liza from receiving a promotion—an advancement that would have meant the two women working even more closely together. Kelsey relents when she sees Liza in mom mode after her daughter is stricken with appendicitis. Season 5 opens with another co-worker discovering Liza’s real age: her boss and love interest, Charles (Peter Hermann), the head of Empirical Press. But because this revelation comes not from Liza herself, but a celebrity author she had accused of a pattern of sexual harassment, the storyline ends up strumming some of the bluest notes in the show’s history: Our heroine’s got pluck, but the patriarchy will strike back.
Younger directly referenced the #MeToo movement in the Season 5 premiere, titled “#LizaToo.” Liza is asked if she knows of any sexual improprieties under the Empirical shingle. “Do you want to say something, Liza?” her caustic supervisor (Miriam Shor) asks. “Could destroy the company, but we’ll support you.” Eventually, Liza reports to a lawsuit-anxious Charles that one of Empirical’s authors—medieval-fantasy novelist Edward L. L. Moore, one of the show’s many caricatures of real-life literary figures—made lewd remarks to various women in the book world. (In the show’s jaunty universe, such relatively minor transgressions should be enough for a man to face consequences.) When Empirical temporarily shelves Edward’s next book, the author launches a deep-pocketed campaign to discredit his accusers. “This one has absolutely zero credibility,” Edward tells Charles, pointing to a snapshot of Liza and revealing her true age to her employer.
Liza doesn’t lose her job, but only because Charles is warned by his lawyer that firing an employee because she’s older than how she represents herself would be inadvisable (not to mention that they shared a kiss). But the fact that Liza’s problems-at-work storylines in Season 5 are set in motion by Edward’s attempt to tar her reputation matters. Liza is the victim of a vengeful attack by a famous and undeniably guilty man who endangers her career to rescue his own. And though Charles believes the allegations against Edward, the fallout from the novelist’s retaliatory efforts still has the potential to make Liza’s tasks near impossible. In the third episode, Charles brusquely rejects the book pitches of an author whom Liza brings in for a meeting. Believing that Charles will tank every writer she tries to develop because of his grudge against her, Liza tries to quit.
Edward or no Edward, Liza leads a charmed life: She expands the imprint she co-manages with Kelsey (while scoring a deal with bibliophile Reese Witherspoon’s production company, natch), and she and Charles will probably end up together in the long run, while her ex Josh, the tattoo artist, looks like he will endeavor to woo her back in the meantime. But Younger does the #MeToo movement a service by reminding us that there are often severe consequences for speaking up, even when the accused falls out of power. (Many men, of course, evade consequence altogether.) Liza has been made into a target, and she now carries on her shoulders the burden of knowing that her actions endangered Empirical’s already-shaky viability as a company. None of which is to imply, of course, that women shouldn’t speak up. But it’s worth acknowledging that progress is seldom achieved without the possibility of fierce and sometimes persistent blowback. Younger’s unique take on #MeToo adds a much-needed wrinkle to a moment we rightly celebrate, but whose darker sides we’re less keen to dwell on. Perhaps wrinkles aren’t so bad after all.