Younger and Insecure Are Proof That It’s a Great Time for TV Rom-Coms

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Sutton Foster in Younger; Issa Rae in Insecure. Photo: TV Land/HBO

I don’t often watch Younger and think to myself, “This reminds me of Insecure.” In fact, I never had that thought until this week, when the season finale of the TV Land comedy aired just days after the season finale of Issa Rae’s HBO series. Watching those two episodes nearly back-to-back highlighted some connections between the two shows that I hadn’t noticed before, and also made it clear how satisfying contemporary TV rom-coms can be when they stay true to themselves.

This goes without saying, but whatever, I’ll say it anyway: Younger and Insecure are very different in obvious ways. The former series, created by veteran TV producer Darren Star, focuses primarily on upwardly mobile white characters living in Brooklyn and Manhattan; the latter, a brainchild of Rae, a relative TV newcomer, captures the experiences of African-American men and women in L.A., some well off, some not. Younger has a high-concept premise — 40-something woman pretends to be a millennial so she can get a job — while Insecure is a character-driven, slice-of-life work with an indie sensibility. Most importantly, Younger is a more traditional, fantasy-driven romantic comedy while Insecure is more experimental and committed to realism, despite occasional sidebars into Issa’s bathroom-mirror imagination.

And yet, the two have things in common. Liza, the Younger protagonist played by Sutton Foster, is middle-aged, but because she basically had to start her life over post-divorce, a lot of her concerns about careers and relationships are not so different from someone a decade or more her junior, as Issa is. Both shows feature beautiful people and have a visual glow that makes them alluring to watch. Both Liza and Issa, the eponymously named Insecure lead played by Rae, have had multiple romantic and sexual partners. But within the context of each series, their love lives are most consistently defined by the fact that they’re torn between two men. For Liza, that’s her tattoo artist ex-boyfriend Josh (Nico Tortorella) and her (secretly) more age-appropriate boss Charles (Peter Hermann). For Issa, it’s her now-ex Lawrence (Jay Ellis), and her friend/regular hook-up partner Daniel (Y’lan Noel). In both season finales, those triangles take center stage.

In “Irish Goodbye,” the last episode of Younger season four, Liza is summoned to Ireland by Josh, who spontaneously decides to visit his girlfriend Clare and, even more spontaneously, to marry her. Josh, who not so long ago was all set to wed Liza, tells Liza he needs her there for the wedding, at which point Liza just jaunts across the Atlantic despite the distance, the cost of such a trip, and the fact that it’s completely last minute and sort of weird that Josh “needs” her to be there. This is all pretty unbelievable, but I let it go because this is Younger and at least 60 percent of it is unbelievable.

I had a harder time, though, when Josh shows up in Liza’s hotel room on the night before his wedding, says he’s never stopped loving her, and starts kissing her. Maybe Josh is having doubts about the marriage, especially since Clare may be more interested in a U.S. green card than she is in having and holding Josh until death do they part. But this still seems to come out of deep left field, given how Josh has been into Clare throughout the entire second half of the season.

But while this narrative choice may be infuriating from a logical standpoint, it’s completely in keeping with Younger’s unspoken mission statement, which is to provide a form of fantasy-based wish fulfillment to its audience — especially those of us who (ahem) are in Liza’s age demographic but sometimes wish we were in our 20s again. On a show like Younger, we watch, in part, because we want to see Liza be desired by two equally handsome men from opposite ends of the age and experience spectrum. Even if it doesn’t make a damn bit of sense, we want to see Nico Tortorella show up out of nowhere and start smashing faces with Sutton Foster, because we’re living vicariously through Foster, and Tortorella is fine as hell. We watch this show to blissfully escape from reality for 30 minutes a week, (or 22 if we avoid commercials). As has been true in some of the best rom-coms — the ones that manage to be both smart yet completely disassociated from reality — we are willing to forgive the more unbelievable moments on Younger because we so enjoy living in the dreamland that it conjures for us every week. (When I try to explain what I like about Younger, I always come back to a moment on The Simpsons, when Bart is trying to awaken Lisa from a particularly delicious daydream she’s having. “Come back, Lis! Come back!” Bart shouts. “Why?” she asks. “I’m so much happier here.”)

Even so, there are times when the amount of disbelief that must be suspended becomes too much to tolerate. The morning after professing his love to Liza, seconds before his wedding ceremony begins, Josh confirms that he decided to marry Clare because the only way he can get over Liza is to “put a ring between them.” This is the worst reason for getting married — not to mention the worst twisting of a Beyoncé lyric — that I’ve ever heard. Josh’s changes of heart gave me whiplash, which is only compounded by the fact that, in the final moments of the finale, Liza gets a call from Charles, a suggestion that he probably wants her back, too. (Poor Liza! So many hot men making so many demands!)

These developments are harder than usual to accept because they are such obvious plot contrivances, twists in the story designed to set up the conflicts that will dominate in season five. Even in a show that is a deliberate fantasy, we do want a tiny bit of realism. Without it, we can’t convince ourselves that maybe some version of what’s happening for Liza could happen in real life. Which is part of the appeal.

One could argue that fantasy is part of the appeal on Insecure, too. (You’ve seen Molly’s apartment and Lawrence’s abs, right?) But that show is far more grounded in capturing reality than Younger. Its one of Insecure’s most admirable qualities: Issa, Molly, and their friends talk the way actual people talk, screw up the way actual people screw up, and work at jobs that often make them feel undervalued, the way so many actual people do. Their relationships are also confusing, as many are in real life, and often bring out their worst instincts rather than their best.

In the season-two finale, “Hella Perspective,” Lawrence shows up at Issa’s door unannounced, kind of the way Josh pops up at Liza’s hotel room. But instead of kissing, he and Issa go into the kitchen of the apartment they once shared and have a difficult heart-to-heart. There are apologies and tears and acknowledgements on both sides that they still love each other, followed by a meaningful, somewhat cryptic hug. It’s a wonderful scene because it rings so true. If you’ve ever loved and respected someone and still had to come to grips with the notion that you aren’t right for each other, you recognize exactly what’s in the air in this moment.

And then, just as Lawrence is saying good-bye, something happens: He gets down on one knee and asks Issa to marry him. At which point, I was thinking, “What the hell, Insecure?” It was out of nowhere and hard to swallow and, even though I still like the idea of Lawrence and Issa together, I did not like it happening this way.

Almost immediately, though, the moment devolves into an alternate-reality montage in which we see Issa and Lawrence as newlyweds, as lovers, and as parents to a beautiful newborn. Then the scene cuts back to the present, where Issa and Lawrence are actually saying good-bye to each other and the place they once called home. Within seconds, Insecure switches from swelling sentimentality to heartbreaking sadness.

Younger would never do something like this. If Josh or Charles got down on one knee in front of Liza, Diana might barge in and ruin everything or some other obstacle might force the engagement to be put on hold. But it wouldn’t flat-out tell us that the proposal itself was a fabrication. That’s not a knock on Younger; it’s just an acknowledgment it’s built a certain way as a romantic comedy. What happens to Liza may disappoint us or leave us in suspense, but its version of reality will never be so bluntly harsh.

Insecure is designed to keep it real. That’s why, during those few seconds when it seems like Lawrence’s proposal is actually happening, it feels like the series is violating its contract with its audience. Fortunately, it doesn’t. By episode’s end, Issa has already returned to old patterns with good ’ol reliable sex buddy Daniel. But in a way, that’s another thing Younger and Insecure have in common: They both explore how women handle dishonesty. Liza is lying to the world about who she is. Issa is often lying to herself.

On both Younger and Insecure, everything doesn’t always work out for its protagonists. If it did, neither one would be much of a show. In that sense, there is a certain real-world element in both. But watching Younger is more like looking at twinkly city lights at night, from a balcony many stories in the sky, while Insecure keeps both feet on the sidewalk, so we can see the cracks in the pavement up close. You may prefer one over the other, but I love that TV has room for rom-coms like both of them. I also love that, even when they frustrate me, each of these shows has a firm sense of its own identity and never apologizes for being exactly what it was meant to be.

Younger and Insecure Prove It’s a Great Time for TV Rom-Coms