If TV Land is experiencing the network version of a midlife crisis, “Younger” marks a promising and more ambitious new direction. Created by Darren Star, the series zeroes in on a generational divide in a broadly comic manner that becomes more interesting and thoughtful as the show progresses, exposing the mistakes people make in their 20s, and the concerns they have about encroaching middle age in their 40s. Not perfect but highly watchable, it’s the kind of signature program that should appeal to its target audience, and perhaps even help chart the Viacom-owned network’s course from “Hot in Cleveland” to whatever comes next.
At the show’s core is a classic romantic comedy setup, which Star (who wrote and directed the back-to-back episodes of the premiere) proceeds to mine and expand upon over the serialized season: Sutton Foster plays Liza, a 40-year-old divorced mom whose 18-year-old daughter is studying abroad. Desperate to re-enter the workforce after years away, Liza is rejected from a job that’s designed for recent college grads (“You’re way too … ,” the young interviewer says, not finishing the thought), and grudgingly convinced by her friend Maggie (Debi Mazar) to lie about her age, saying she’s only 26.
An assistant’s position follows at a book publisher, where Liza quickly befriends a young editor, Kelsey (Hilary Duff); and must deal with a condescending boss, Diana (Miriam Shor), who, like Liza, is fortysomething, divorced, and prone to rolling her eyes at the youthful underlings sniffing after her job. On top of that, Liza quickly meets Josh (Nico Tortorella), a handsome tattoo artist who immediately assumes Liza is his age, and after seeing him with his shirt off, she’s reluctant to tell him otherwise.
There’s comedy, inevitably, in Liza’s struggle to maintain the ruse, letting slip a reference to Punky Brewster that elicits blank stares from her new peers; or studying up on appropriate answers to a question like “Who inspires you?” (“The Hunger Games’ ” Katniss Everdeen, naturally.)
Happily, there are also more resonant moments — watching Kelsey make the mistake of beginning a flirtation with an author whose signing could make her career, or Liza being uncomfortably privy to the disparaging comments younger women make among themselves about those in their 40s.
Best known for her work on Broadway, but having dabbled in TV (including the short-lived “Bunheads”), Foster brings the requisite roller-coaster of emotions to Liza’s situation, which include money troubles among the worries of maintaining her charade. “I don’t know if I can have sex with someone who’s barely old enough to rent a car,” she agonizes in a later episode. Star, who created “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and adapted “Sex and the City,” is back in familiar territory, with this show featuring Brooklyn environs. Inevitably, there are stereotypical aspects on both sides of the age gap — from the flakiness of Kelsey’s contemporaries to Diana too often coming across as a bitter scold — but the series seldom pitches so far across those lines as to be unable to find its way back.
As for TV Land, after originals that skewed toward reality shows and broad sitcoms meant to be indistinguishable from ’80s reruns, “Younger” represents a welcome shift. And even if the title is as much ironic as aspirational — mirroring the desire of an older-skewing network to attract a more youthful audience — as Liza learns, there’s nothing wrong with a little demographic pandering, as long as it has the right kind of wrinkles.