‘Younger’ Grows Up: Sutton Foster on Season 5’s #MeToo Movement
TV Land’s hit rom-com has moved way past its 40-going-on-26 age lie gimmick. As the show takes on #MeToo, Sutton Foster talks about its surprising popularity, and evolution.
Did TV Land’s hit rom-com series Younger somehow predict the age of fake news? The show debuted in 2015 around the conceit that a recently divorced 40-year-old mom lies about her age, pretending to be 26 in order to get a job in an age-discriminating publishing world—well, the world in general.
“The whole basis of the show is a character who lies about her age and the consequences of lying,” Sutton Foster, who plays Liza, the aforementioned masquerading millennial, says. “Last season we dealt with facts and fake news and lying and what’s real. The world has obviously changed in the last couple of years to the point that those things are definitely topical.”
The show has changed, too. The first season of the series dealt with the delicate house of cards Liza built in order to get away with the lie, which involved having to keep her true identity secret from a new young boyfriend (Nico Tortorella) and work BFF (Hilary Duff).
With each passing season, the show is less concerned with whether that house of cards will come crashing down. In turn, it’s discovered a rich world freed from the restraints of its conceptual gimmick, one that, as Foster says, mines increasingly topical issues for story, from gender pay gaps to feminism to fake news and, in Tuesday night’s season five premiere, even the #MeToo movement.
In fact, we tell Foster, the show has moved so far past its initial conceit that when the age lie popped up again in a major plot point near the end of the #MeToo-centric episode, we were so invested in love triangles and other juicy storylines that we had almost forgotten about it entirely.
“Which is fantastic! That just means that maybe we’ll get a couple more seasons,” she says with a laugh, although she need not waste too much energy willing a renewal into existence. Younger is the rare TV series to grow in viewership year after year, with its season four finale its most-watched episode yet. “It’s an interesting thing that’s still woven in,” she says about the premise of her character’s deception. “But the show has definitely outgrown that.”
It’s hard to resist age-related puns when a show is called Younger—“outgrown,” “grows up,” etc.—but perhaps that’s fitting with the aesthetic of the show.
It’s a series that, sure, could be easily labeled a romantic fairy tale or your typical high-concept romantic comedy. But it’s also one imbued with an edginess and understanding of our culture’s ongoing conversations about dating, sex, and sexism. It treats stories about love and femininity with respect and dignity, but it is still flirty and irreverent, kind of like an aspirational mirror reflecting back what’s going on in the world — except with more attractive people wearing nicer clothes and speaking in smarter quips.
That Younger and its penchant for dressing deep cultural insights in fabulous designer duds comes from Sex and the City creator Darren Star with styling by its legendary wardrobe maven Patricia Field should come, then, as no surprise. The two series are certainly in conversation with each other. The characters in Younger’s New York City are byproducts of the Manolo-wearing, cosmo-swilling, Big-chasing world Carrie and her friends glamorized. But in place of “couldn’t help but wonder…” fretting, Younger deals in more modern dating angst about nude selfies, dating apps, and American culture’s evolving relationship to women.
And so the conversations surrounding the show, too, have evolved. We would never have imagined when we starting covering Younger three years ago that on our list of topics to talk to Foster about, questions about #MeToo would be included.
“One of the greatest gifts that the show has had is the time,” she says. “That’s what Darren Star is so phenomenal about. He just has his finger on the pulse of culture and what’s going on. To be on a show that’s so female forward and then tackle the #MeToo movement has been so gratifying.”
On Tuesday night’s premiere, sexual harassment in the workplace takes center stage when an author at the publishing house modeled after Game of Thrones’ George R.R. Martin is accused of sexual harassment by Liza and a slew of women who worked with him at promotional events. It hits on several different elements of the #MeToo conversation, as the author sets out to use his fame and power to discredit his accusers, and other people in the office are forced to confront their own behavior. Liza’s boss and will-they/won’t-they love interest, Charles (Peter Hermann), questions whether the nature of his complicated romance with her is appropriate.
“I remember some of the early things that were written about the show were like, ‘Oh this crazy premise!’” Foster says. “Maybe some of the things we’re doing now that are based in reality would have been crazy five years ago.”
For Foster, it’s also meant trial-by-fire as a person in the public eye not just starring on a TV show that engages in these topics, but one who is also asked to speak about them.
She’s been through the shock of the press tour before. She was about to turn 40 when promoting the premiere of Younger three years ago; because of that and the show’s concept, she was pummeled with questions about her age, her looks, ageism, and any existential feelings she had about the milestone—all things that, after more than 15 years as a successful Broadway leading lady, she had never really considered.
“I remember when the show started out, people were asking me, because I had just turned 40, all the ageism stuff. I was like, ‘Whaaat?’ It was this thing that I had never really faced,” she says. “Now with the show, I’m not a political person in my real life. I often say when people start talking politics or stuff that I’m in a field with puppy dogs and flowers. But there are certain things that even I am like, ‘Well I can’t be quiet anymore.’”
It’s not just any actress who, at age 43, could pull off playing a character who pretends to be in her mid-twenties so convincingly that actual twentysomething men want to date her… and then somehow make that character likable enough that you still root for her despite the fact that her major lie affects the lives of many people.
But if you happened to see Foster tap her way through Anything Goes’ eight-minute long title number only to somehow belt out an eight-bar note at the end, or watched her tireless song-and-dance marathon in Thoroughly Modern Millie—two shows that won Foster a Tony Award—then you’re aware of her ability to pull off performance miracles.
When we meet to talk about the new season of Younger, her signature long, brown hair is draped over her shoulders like a throw, perfectly accenting the cute mid-length dress that would, fittingly, be age-appropriate for both of Liza’s ages. Fawning from fans since she signed on for Younger has often centered on the fact that, yes, she does read as ageless in person. But to say that does a disservice to the palpable comfort she has in her skin. She’s routinely asked about her beauty secrets but, cheesy as it sounds, a major factor seems to be a kind of centered happiness.
When we sat down to talk before season one, her Doxie/Yorkie mix, Mabel, was running around the hotel suite while we nerdily gushed about the episode of Say Yes to the Dress she recently was featured in. She was set to marry her now-husband, Ted Griffin, in a few months. Since then, the two adopted their first child, Emily, together.
“It’s been wild,” she says. “In the middle of the first season I got married. In the middle of the third season we were trying to have a baby. I was doing like fertility treatments and then we were going through all the adoption stuff. There were so many things that were so insane. And the fourth season, a month before we started filming, my daughter was born. Now she’s 13 months old. Someday when she’s much older, I have this time capsule of the show I’m able to show her.”
Even just leaving her apartment this morning, she took a mental snapshot of the image of her husband holding their baby girl while two dogs scurried around their feet, all walking with her to the elevator to say goodbye.
“I feel really lucky. I’m also grateful that it’s happened at this point in my life, because I don’t take any of it for granted,” she says. “I know it’s fleeting and I know it’s just for now and not forever. So I’m trying to enjoy it all while it’s happening because I know it could be over.”
Before we leave, then, we have one last question, and it’s the same one we have for her every season. Can she believe that someone has gotten away with a lie this big for so long?
“No,” Foster says definitively, before erupting into a hearty laugh. “But I also think that’s why the show has evolved into something so much more than that.”