There is a joke that I have started hearing around New York City, in the (admittedly small) publishing circles I travel in: If you hear a good tidbit of gossip, you can almost guarantee it will appear in subtly fictionalized form on the next season of Younger, a sitcom set in the book world. In one episode, rumors circulate that literary authors are choosing to boycott Achilles, a behemoth that resembles Amazon. In another, the Lean In phenomenon becomes Get Real, a philosophy dispensed in Dr. Phil–style sessions by an aggressive woman in a sheath dress. Later, Annabelle Bancroft (Jane Krakowski) serves as a Candace Bushnell–esque sex writer, whose books bear titles like Shedonism and Mantastic. No trend is spared: The show pounces on hygge, Marie Kondo, adult coloring books, Pod Save America, Reese Witherspoon’s book club, and even self-help tomes written by a dog.
Now in its fifth season, Younger airs on TV Land, an otherwise sleepy corner of the Viacom empire, best known for reruns of Gunsmoke and M*A*S*H. It is an unlikely home for a show that has gained a serious cult following since it debuted in 2015, especially within the industry it portrays. If there is one thing that creator Darren Star—the man behind a handful of other high-gloss hits, such as Melrose Place and Sex and the City—knows, it is a winning television formula: Take an insular, aspirational world (an exclusive Los Angeles housing complex or Manhattan before the financial crisis or the petri dish of New York publishing) and blow it up into a glittery cartoon-land where farce and reality are all mixed up. Sex and the City has long been lambasted for its inaccuracies and omissions, but it endures 20 years on because of all the details it got right: At the turn of the millennium, New York really was becoming more selfish, more consumerist, and more focused on the ambitious individual.
Younger shares a large swath of DNA with Sex and the City (including its stylist—the series’ exaggerated outfits spring yet again from the mind of the eccentric costumer Patricia Field, who is not afraid to dress a woman in head-to-toe marabou and spangles), but it reflects a less glamorous world. In the years since Carrie Bradshaw paid her rent with a weekly column, the writing economy has suffered extreme shifts: It has gone digital, collapsed, revived (briefly), collapsed again. Many of the female employees in Younger have to deal with workplace discrimination and the perils of ambition; they labor to keep their industry afloat, even as new technology scratches at the door. (A multi-episode arc in which a tech scion attempts a hostile takeover of a publishing house centers this last anxiety.)
Perhaps Star chose to make a comedy about book publishing because it initially looked luminous and cosmopolitan, but it has become a clever conduit through which to take on a wider range of issues. Publishing, at its heart, is about trying to capture and disseminate the zeitgeist; many of the conversations that the characters end up having on Younger are about how best to shepherd these new stories into the world and about the bumps they hit along the way. Although launched as a summer show with a fun, outlandish premise, for five seasons Younger has gone much further, offering a sharp critique of how culture gets made.
Let’s get that outlandish premise out of the way: Younger is a show about a 40-year-old woman who pretends to be, well, younger. When the show begins, Liza Miller (Sutton Foster) has recently separated from her husband, and her college-bound daughter is traveling abroad. She once worked at Random House but has been out of the publishing game for nearly two decades, having ditched her editorial goals and languished for years as a New Jersey stay-at-home mom. Embracing her newfound adult freedom, Liza relocates to Brooklyn. She moves into an airy Williamsburg loft—perhaps the least believable element of the show—with her best friend, a vampish lesbian artist named Maggie (Debi Mazar). Still pining for the book world, she starts applying for jobs but finds that, at her age and with her stunted experience, no corporate HR rep will even entertain her résumé, let alone give her any real power.
So she lies. Five seasons of sitcom antics begin when Liza removes from her CV any details that might suggest her age and scrubs all evidence of her earlier life from the internet. She claims to be 26, a stunt that only works because of Foster’s deceptively youthful visage (an entire cottage industry has sprung up around trying to replicate her anti-aging techniques). One big white lie and a forged driver’s license later, Liza lands a gig as an assistant at a tony publishing house called Empirical Press, which has been run by the same family for generations. Charles Brooks (Peter Hermann), the publisher who inherited the role from his father, is a dapper, suit-wearing executive with an old-school mentality; he likes Scotch, cherry-wood furnishings, and the collected works of John Updike. He runs Empirical alongside an elegant head of marketing named Diana Trout (Miriam Shor).
Liza’s closest confidant at Empirical is a buoyant assistant editor named Kelsey (Hilary Duff). Despite being the sort of aggressively mainstream young person in New York who survives on Greek yogurt and SoulCycle, Kelsey has a slow-boiling ambitious streak, and Charles puts her in charge of her own imprint. She is (actually) 26, and she makes a strong case for a new line of books called Millennial Print, which would highlight the work of and address the issues that plague young people today. Whether or not this would work in the real world, Kelsey makes a convincing argument in the fictional universe. Books are changing, she insists. Young people are reading in new ways; they want covers they can Instagram and bite-size kernels of wisdom they can tweet out. The pitch flies, and Kelsey wrangles Liza into running the imprint as her partner.
Together they set off on a hunt for new authors and clash with some old ones. A major source of conflict is Empirical’s star author, Edward L.L. Moore (Richard Masur), a George R.R. Martin figure, who has written his own fantasy series featuring lithe women in fur bikinis. An unsavory air lingers around this character: In one episode, Liza is forced to dress up in scanty clothes to play Moore’s heroine “Princess Pam Pam” at the Times Square launch of a new installment of his Crown of Kings series, a role that makes her deeply uncomfortable. Then, at the beginning of season 5, the #MeToo movement reveals that Moore has a history of badly mistreating women. (Here the show diverges from reality: Such charges have never been brought against Martin.) Charles cancels Moore’s next book, which leads Moore to blackmail Charles, showing him documents that prove Liza’s real age. This is a pickle, as Charles has slowly been falling in love with Liza, an inappropriate office relationship with its own murky ethical dimensions.
Liza may have lied about her age, but she did it in order to overcome a mountain of ageism and sexism. What’s most surprising about Younger is that through incredibly specific publishing jokes it has managed to make the viewer not only feel sympathetic toward a woman who has built her career on a lie but also root for her. The book world can be hypocritical, superficial, and obsessed with youth. But it is also thrilling, full of promise, and, as several of the projects mentioned on Younger indicate, still a hotbed of creativity and new ideas. We want Liza to be able to be a part of all that.
In the fifth season, I’ve come to realize that Younger’s most revelatory character may not be Liza or Kelsey, who keep getting trapped in deceitful webs of their own making. Instead, it is Diana. Though her role is really a composite of several jobs in publishing—she seems to combine marketing, publicity, packaging, and scouting in a single powerhouse—her character remains an accurate depiction of a certain type of industry grande dame. She serves as a mentor, a scold, and sometimes even a visionary—she can take a quiet novel like P is for Pigeon (a thinly veiled parody of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk) and convert it into a sleeper hit. But she also represents a kind of throwback to an earlier, corporate-friendly feminism: She has had to fight her way into her position, and this has left her emotionally stiff.
Most of the young women on Younger are on an upward career trajectory and are skilled at coordinating their lines of attack in order to get ahead. For Diana, a lone wolf who already wins awards at galas, the show is about stumbling into vulnerability and beginning to trust other women, even those less experienced than her, to come up with some of the answers. This season, she befriends Lauren (Molly Bernard), a social-climbing, neurotic young publicist who calls Diana “diva” and urges her to embrace her own sexual power. When Diana learns that Enzo, a plumber she is dating, is a former porn star, she decides that she can either run away from the embarrassment or accept the fact that everyone comes with a backstory. Diana has always been the go-to problem solver at Empirical, armed with an old-school fierceness; much of her arc on the show is about learning to ask for support.
Perhaps this is the most poignant note the show has to offer about the publishing business: At one point, women had to go it alone if they wanted to get ahead. But this thinking will not push the industry forward forever. At the end of the fifth season, Kelsey acquires a business book called Claw that encourages women to be ruthless, to step on everyone else to get ahead. Diana clucks when she hears the pitch. She already knows that the idea is specious. But, she sighs, she can turn it into a bestseller.