Considered briefly, the hit US dramedy Younger is a low pretext for the display of high fashions. Considered at length, its leading lady does have the legs to carry off Missoni’s knitted separates. Save for some very bold arrangements of winter layering, Younger shows no depth. The only statements here are made by raw gemstones worn on pretty necks. Younger is empty lifestyle pornography curated for a desiring West that can no longer separate itself from the commodity. I totally love it and I never miss a week.
Younger, the season five finale of which aired last week, is the ridiculous work of the dependably ridiculous Darren Star. A shark-jumping, genre-confirming genius, Star rose to network prominence in the 1990s through the creation of some of screen’s flattest women. In Melrose Place, he drew phallic mother Amanda, played by Heather Locklear, in infant male crayon. To be fair, though, all the men at that address were written as hollow himbos or one-gear villains. But Star’s career has been largely built on the backs of his glamorous female voids.
The feminist case for Star’s great success, Sex and the City, is sometimes still publicly made. I understand the impulse here, as I have made the case myself, domestically. When the feminist is emotionally attached to four voids distinguishable only by the things they shove inside their emptiness – men, shoes, money, career, shoes – she may feel obliged to explain. One feminist explanation, made popular by the show’s star herself is this – Sex and the City tells the story of empowering female friendships. It really doesn’t. But if this rationale got Sarah Jessica Parker to work every day for six seasons, it has practical, if not critical, value.
Sex and the City was no examination of the bonds that form between women. It was about our true social relations – those that form between things. Samantha, Charlotte, Carrie and the other one can exist only in their alienated state of desire for things. If you don’t believe me, watch what happens to the franchise when Carrie finally lands Big; a Carrie who needs for nothing is no kind of Carrie at all. The true friendship here exists between commodities. But, what commodities! The ur-stylist Patricia Field, also known for her work on The Devil Wears Prada, made such perfect relations between desirable things.
Alongside her former protégé, Jacqueline Demeterio, Field is once again curating costume for Darren Star on Younger. Once again, it’s a mesmerising collaboration. Twenty years after the TV debut of a wardrobe that made the term “Manolo”, and its referent, synonymous with a certain white cosmopolitan femininity, Field retains her intimate approach to apparel. Her challenge here is to mix-and-match into life a protagonist with two distinct lives, by which we also mean wardrobes.
We encounter Liza, played by Broadway star Sutton Foster, as her marriage of two decades is torn by infidelity, thwarted ambition, financial problems and, probably, poor fashion choices. Her daughter is enjoying an Eat Pray Love-style ashram mini-break abroad as Liza finds herself penniless and alone. We know immediately that she is a selfless mother committed to the cause of her child’s flowering because she is dressed in unflattering garments. A former book editor, Foster’s Liza attempts to resume her career but finds, at 40, that she is too old for the go-go world of New York City publishing.
With the help of her best pal and post-divorce saviour Maggie, played by perennial pin-up Debi Mazar, Liza moves into an unfeasibly large Brooklyn loft, downs a craft beer and learns that – in low light – she appears to millennial man candy as – get this – younger. Naturally, Liza is soon seen in form-fitting raiment, the close company of sexy lumbersexuals and – you’ll never believe it – assuming control of a publishing imprint aimed at those fluent in hashtag and emoji, which is, of course, called Millennial. And no one but Maggie can ever learn the truth that Liza is not 26 but 40. The travails of her age force her to relive her youth, and much hashtag hilarity ensues as this bookish New Jersey mother makes constant mistakes on Twitter; among them, an attempt to popularise the work of Joyce Carol Oates via a breast-baring campaign with the slogan “Show Us Your Oates”.
No. It’s not a naturalistic, or even believable, premise. Really, Star has sliced his high concept so thinly over five improbable seasons, there is no case to be made here for substance.
This, to be quite clear, is not a complaint. I am very grateful to find one abyss on TV that will never stare back at me. While Younger does consciously weave issues of the era into its episodes, it disposes of them agreeably. In one plot line, we see a George R. R. Martin-ish figure upon whose bloated fantasy series the fortunes of Liza’s publishing company depend. When Liza is asked by this profitable pile to dress for his pleasure in a fur bikini, she finds herself unable to refuse. This #MeToo gesture is not at all disrespectful to the movement, but nor is it particularly meaningful beyond itself. It unfolds, as do many moments, to remind us this show is on trend.
Should the set design, the Instagram-able Manhattan or the hashtag-heavy dialogue not tip you off that this is a show by, for and about the commodities of 2018, then young pansexual publicist, Lauren, shall. Played at glorious high speed by newcomer Molly Bernard, Lauren is a type of distracted social media Cassandra. She warns of the waning fad and sniffs the air, as though this death can only be detected as vapour. I suspect it is not so much the writing room but Bernard’s very own comic understanding of the era she has been employed to translate that makes her Lauren such a millennial gas. Well, that and all those crop tops and post-Slutwalk micro skirts from wardrobe.
It is, however, actor Miriam Shor (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) whose delivery is most often equal to her wardrobe. As Diana Trout, a gravely libidinous marketing executive, Shor eclipses a little of the scenery and my memory of Samantha – “the slutty one” – from Sex and the City. Antagonist to the millennials, she chides her juniors with the best and nastiest lines. She tells Liza – who becomes her faux-millennial assistant – that “vaping on the quad at Dartmouth” and developing “fondness for African literature” is no preparation for hard work, then returns to her own hard work of yelling at younger associates while wearing statement jewellery.
Trout’s work does not seem hard or serious. In fact, the Younger universe is crammed with questionable productivity. Lauren’s work is to plan parties to publicise literary commodities created, very often, by authors without obvious merit. Liza’s work is to dream of a historic literary discovery of a Thomas Wolfe dimension – the sort of author unlikely to make her Millennial imprint, whose biggest hit is Conversations with My Doodle, a self-help book written by a poodle cross named Pearl. Save for the porn star turned plumber who wins Ms Trout’s affection, even blue-collar workers exist to serve the unproductive knowledge class. Of an influential colleague, Diana says, “His doorman is friends with my dog walker. That’s why it’s important to stay down with the people.”
Star does veer in this flashy vehicle from sentiment to sharp detachment. For much of an episode, Liza is the property of goofball Sutton Foster – and, of course, the wardrobe department. Her ethnographic adventures in millennial-land, her conversations with entitled poodle authors, her hashtag misuse, make this show effortlessly watchable, right up to the point of some improving lesson about ageism, or sexist ageism. We take pleasure in Lauren’s hyper-fluidity and ADHD-era Dotty Parker dialogue, until the moralising decision is taken to – snore – show the consequences of an age obsessed with identity and appearance. Such inspiring moments are already in oversupply on TV’s streaming services. And, they are usually delivered by persons more sincere and informed in their efforts than the guy from Melrose Place.
Still, Younger could well turn out to be Darren Star’s greatest work. If he can lose the urge to change the world – or, perhaps, the urge to appear to change the world – and stay focused on the ephemera by which his empty women fill themselves up, this show will not suffer in comparison with Sex and the City, which I can now admit to watching largely for the tutus. Never for the empowering friendships.
When it remains as agreeably vapid as it should be, Younger is about the friendships of things, not people, as Sex and the City was wont to pretend. These are void women, united by doormen, dog walkers, poodles, sex and shoes. Which might sound sexist, but no more so than Absolutely Fabulous – a comedy to which Younger might be usefully compared. Unproductive lady knowledge workers who drink too much, lie about their age and reconstitute their bond through the mutual lust for the same high-end commodities are, in my view, a great deal of fun to watch.
Liza or Lauren only become sexist representations when Star tries to replace their emptiness with moralising realism. Liza, Diana and Hilary Duff’s go-getting editor Kelsey are not real women, most of the time. Instead, they are funny, adrenalised representations of Star’s Barbie collection; they’re genuine imitations of no one who has ever lived.
It is rare to watch women written entirely outside a moral code. It is a pleasure to see female figures compete on TV not to inspire you and me, but only to be the worst labourers, the best shoppers or the most outlandishly dressed. To feel confident that there is nothing to learn and nothing to take but pleasure is the gift Darren Star can give.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 8, 2018 as "26 and the city". Subscribe here.