For three seasons, Younger has asked its audience to believe the unbelievable: that Liza Miller (Sutton Foster), a soon-to-be-divorced, 40-something mom can successfully pretend to be a millennial in order to keep her job in the publishing industry.
As preposterous as that premise may sound, fans of this deliciously fantasy-driven comedy, which returns tonight for its fourth season on TV Land, have willingly bought it. That’s partly because the charming Foster is convincing and youthful enough to make you think she could pull off an age-related long con. It also helps that certain viewers — read: those in their 30s or older — may be more willing than usual to bat away the show’s improbabilities so they can continue to live vicariously through its heroine. Do you blame them? Lisa works in a book-publishing world that’s 1,000 times more glamorous than the actual book-publishing world; she lives in a spacious, artsy loft in a glossier version of Brooklyn; and she dates a super-hot tattoo artist when she isn’t grappling with her feelings for her equally hot literary-buff boss. Who cares about the dishonesty and nagging sense of guilt when you have all that?
Perhaps the most effective thing that the team behind Younger has done to keep its narrative afloat is to slowly, methodically allow Liza’s secret to trickle out. Last season ended on a cliffhanger in which Liza finally confessed to her colleague and close friend Kelsey (Hilary Duff) that she’s been lying about her age. The initial episodes of season four focus on the aftermath of that confession, as Kelsey grapples with having been betrayed by someone she had considered to be a peer, confidante, and, most importantly, her partner in running Millennial, an Empirical Press imprint designed to target readers of an age Liza is only pretending to be.
Without giving too much away about what happens in the initial, highly bingeable episodes of the new season, let’s just say that there are reasons why Kelsey struggles with whether to completely blow Liza’s cover, including the fact that her reputation is tethered to Liza’s. While that doesn’t mean that Liza’s swaying house of cards won’t topple before the season ends, it does mean that Kelsey’s motivations to unmask her are complicated. It’s a smart choice that gives Younger a welcome sense of tension to sit comfortably alongside its usual rom-com playfulness.
In previous seasons, threats to Liza’s livelihood have been handled with a lot less subtlety, most notably when a falling construction beam crushed and killed Thad, Kelsey’s fiancé, before he could tell people about her true age. But while Younger could never be accused of trafficking in realism, creator Darren Star and the writers have made the show at least semi-believable in its portrayal of how long it can take for the truth to come out. In real life, when someone covers up a dark secret, the actual story usually doesn’t burst forth at once; it releases with a long, slow hiss, after multiple holes have been poked in a balloon. So it is on Younger.
In its fourth season, Younger also keeps doing what it does so well. It riffs on current trends and events, from hygge to politics (Kristin Chenoweth guest stars in the first episode as a Kellyanne Conway–esque spin doctor), with a light touch that’s never so light as to insult the intelligence. This season marks the first time that the series has actually debuted during the summer, which is the perfect time to be watching it. We tend to crave pop culture that’s addictive and purely entertaining more than ever during this season, and Younger is precisely that sort of television.
It’s also the sort of show that pokes fun at millennial stereotypes without talking down to members of that demographic. The whole idea that Liza can blend in with New Yorkers nearly 20 years younger than she is speaks to the idea that the generation gaps perpetuated in the media may not be as vast as we think. Younger may be a show about a woman living out a simultaneously understandable, absurd, and reprehensible lie, but this addictive series also subtly highlights a greater truth: that those so-called “coddled” millennials and “slacker” Gen-Xers actually relate to each other far more deeply than the distance between their ages might suggest.