by Faith Pennick
TV Land’s new comedy series Younger has its lead character Liza doing her own take on “Tootsie.” Instead of gender-flipping for a career opportunity, Liza is 40, divorced and restarting her career in publishing after a long absence. The series begins with Liza, played by Tony-winning Broadway veteran Sutton Foster, interviewing at a publishing company in Manhattan. She is being interviewed by two hyper-fashionable young women who are incredulous to hiring an “old” woman, despite her previous experience as a junior editor. Unable to land a job, Liza bitches to her bestie Maggie (Debi Mazar) at a bar. She is paying the “mommy tax” for leaving the work force to take care of her family. Her remuneration is her husband leaving her, joint checkbook in hand. Liza has to sell their house and everything in it. She needs a job badly.
As Maggie takes a bathroom break, a 26-year-old tattoo artist named Josh (Nico Tortorella) hits on her at the bar, hatching the idea for Liza to commit to being the 20-something that Josh thinks she is. Liza’s initial resistance to the idea turns into a makeover. Goodbye Ann Taylor LOFT and pubic hair. Hello Forever 21 and a “strip landing.”
Wearing knee-high stockings and fashionable mini dresses, Liza moves in with Maggie and gets a job at another publishing house, making another friend/ally in the process, 20-something editor, Kelsey (Hilary Duff), AND (of course) she gets the hot tattoo artist. As it highlights Liza’s cluelessness about social media, Younger ignores her financial struggles: how do you pay for your daughter’s study abroad program in India on an assistant’s salary? I didn’t expect Younger creator Darren Star to deal with that pesky reality (the show is based on the book by Pamela Redmond Satran). Another example of Star’s class myopia: no mention on how Mazar’s character can afford a HUGE loft space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on an artist’s earnings! Like Star’s Sex and the City sisters-in-style, fantasy is reality and struggle is in no way sexy. Younger starts out touching on the very timely topics of underemployment and age discrimination towards people over 40, and within 15 minutes abandons them for cute frocks and cuter men. I do find merit in the relationship between Liza and Josh, although I do wonder, will Josh still find Liza sexy when she hits perimenopause? Would love to see Darren Star tackle that!
At one point, Liza goes out on a date with an age-appropriate but self-absorbed man. She does not experience the excitement and attraction that she has with Josh. However, tattoo boy stays true to being a good-looking, 20-something guy in New York. Not long after sleeping together, Liza stumbles upon Josh late at night with a woman in his apartment. Later, Josh explains to Liza that she was an ex-girlfriend who stopped by uninvited, revealing his openness to hookups in which former lovers remain occasional current lovers. Liza handles the situation with maturity, acknowledging that she has no claim on him, while sharing with Maggie an honest pang of jealousy: “That moment when I saw them together, my stomach just dropped.” Both reactions are valid (I’ve been there). Liza isn’t necessarily down with sharing her guy, but she appreciates that the rules of the dating game are different for millennials. Those rules aren’t exclusive to that generation, just more prevalent and out in the open.
Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s film While We’re Young appears on the surface to be another “40-somethings-reliving-their-youth” tale. Jamie and Darby, a couple in their 20s (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), sit in on a college lecture given by documentary filmmaker Josh (not to be confused with Younger’s Josh. Ben Stiller plays this one). Afterwards, Jamie approaches Josh and proclaims to be a fan of his work. From there, Josh and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) become a fixture in Jamie and Darby’s world of hipsterism. Josh and Jamie go bike riding and talk documentary film, Cornelia tags along with Darby to her hip-hop dance class, which is apparently a few blocks away from where I used to live in Bed-Stuy. Both couples don their white linen and trip the light fantastic at a private ayahuasca party.
In between the “too cool for school” socializing, Josh is wrangling with a film he has spent ten years making. Inadvertently rubbing salt in the wound that is Josh’s ego is Leslie (Charles Grodin), an acclaimed and more successful documentarian who happens to be Josh’s father-in-law. Josh and Cornelia also have passive-aggressive banter about not having kids after failed attempts, exacerbated by their best friends becoming first-time parents.
Unlike Younger, which focuses on the fun and frivolity of a quadragenarian shaving 14 years off of her age, While We’re Young shows two 40-somethings living in the moment while staring down the end—being childless, mortality, Josh’s comical discovery that he has arthritis in the knee. But Josh in particular realizes (remembers?) that being younger doesn’t necessarily make things easier, nor make you a better person.
While We’re Young is really about authenticity and honesty. Jamie turns out be a pathological liar whose own documentary film, which Josh initially helped him construct, features a friend—Jamie’s on camera but Darby’s in reality—and his emotionally-charged experiences told through staged interactions. Unlike Josh’s ongoing slog in making his film, Jamie’s star rises quickly and he is embraced by “old school” documentarian Leslie, much to Josh’s disbelief.
Jamie becoming documentary film’s golden boy, plus his exploitation of Darby and her friend creates a riff in their marriage, which unfortunately the film doesn’t spend enough time exploring. Josh is While We’re Young’s moral center, possibly a doppelganger for Baumbach himself. Josh rails at Jamie near the end of the film about ethics in documentary cinema, but his rant is somewhat undermined by his jealousy of Jamie. A couple of scenes later, Josh shares a Willy Loman-like revelation with Cornelia: “I’m 44 years old. There are things that I won’t do, and things I will never have (That may not be the line verbatim, but it’s a close approximation).” Okay. Welcome to Earth, dude. While We’re Young sets up life expectations for Josh and Cornelia from the benchmark of upper-middle-class white privilege. Any shortcomings or dreams unfulfilled are stains on their existence. In comparison, as fabulous as Liza’s life appears to be in Younger, she is still functioning out of necessity and grave circumstances. Another glaring problem with both Younger and While We’re Young is the near complete absence of people of color. Seeing this whitewashed New York over and over again is frustrating and flat out inaccurate.
This post-bank bailout economy has not been kind to many people in their 40s. I can say as a 40-something single woman living in Brooklyn, being in this age range can also be quite isolating. Either your peers are busy with families of their own (and want to socialize with other couples with kids), or they drop off the grid due to their own struggles and not wanting to be reminded of what their lives are lacking. Many of my friends and romantic interests are younger than me, in part because of the vibrancy and “go for it” attitudes that haven’t been beaten out of them. So even with their respective flaws, I get the appeal of Younger and While We’re Young and enjoyed them both. But any veracity the show and film possess come from a very narrow lens, and the diversity is nonexistent.
Faith Pennick is a filmmaker and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She is currently working on a feature screenplay titled Double Effect that she plans to direct in 2016. Follow her on Twitter @orgchaosmedia. For more information on her films, visit www.orgchaos.com