I have a confession to make: I am completely obsessed with Younger. The TV Land comedy, which stars Sutton Foster as Liza Miller—a 40-year-old divorcee posing as a 26-year-old assistant at a venerable publishing house called Empirical—is a brisk, oh-so-easy-to-binge delight; I finished all 42 episodes that have aired to date in approximately two weeks. (Sidenote: New Younger tonight!)
But as much as I appreciate Liza’s friendship with actual twentysomething Kelsey Peters (Hilary Duff), the calloused wisdom of her longtime pal, Maggie (Debi Mazar), the kindliness of Empirical head Charles Brooks (Peter Hermann), the prim perfection of Diana Trout (series MVP Miriam Shor), and the frequent shirtlessness of Liza’s boyfriend, Josh (Nico Tortorella), it was the first mention of one Anton Bjornberg that earned my affection. Because Younger, for all its millennial-themed jokes and screwball situations, is also a tart satire of media and publishing’s most sacred cows, trolling figures from the literary firmament with glee. I ranked the major ones here, from worst to best:
The troller: Matthew Morrison
The trolled: James Rebanks
Morrison’s turn ranks dead last because Younger’s finest trolls are detailed, identifiable and (gently! smilingly!) cut to the marrow of one or another cultural phenomenon. This one is none of those, not least because it culminates with Liza discovering Morrison’s farmer-turned-essayist (seemingly based on Rebanks, the author of the British bestseller The Shepherd’s Life) buggering one of his sheep. It’s as broad as, well, a barn, and Younger is capable of better.
The troller: Susan Blackwell
The trolled: Annie Leibovitz
Different problem, similar outcome: photographer Amy Lynne Stone, who appears on screen for no more than a few seconds, is so thinly drawn compared to most of the supporting characters on this list that comparing her to Annie Leibovitz is just a stab in the dark. (Her black-and-white images, collected in Real Women Over 40, do have a certain Vanity Fair cover model quality, but is Leibovitz really hawking her books solo at the Hamptons Book Fair? I doubt it.) That said, the scene functions as a tacit inside joke about how Sutton Foster manages to look 26 even though she’s 42 (!), so it’s not a complete wash.
The troller: Camryn Manheim
The trolled: Dr. Meg Jay
In Younger, Dr. Jane Wray is the author of a self-help book for millennials called The Deciding Decade, and suggests that one’s twenties are, in fact, vitally important; in the real world, Dr. Meg Jay is the author of a self-help book for millennials called The Defining Decade, and suggests that “30 Is Not the New 20.” I beg to differ—I’m thriving, thank you very much—but the point is, even if Manheim’s troll isn’t exactly a comic gut-punch, Younger very precisely apes the genre of millennial scolding that folks in their fifties sell as “self-help.”
The troller: Kristin Chenoweth
The trolled: Kellyanne Conway
The title of the Season Four premiere, “Post Truth,” is the dead giveaway here—as are the blond tresses, the word salad, and the note-perfect name of her memoir: It’s True Because I’m Shouting It: Confessions of a Washington Spin Doctor. Still, though Chenoweth sinks her pearly whites into the role (“And I don’t care if you are transgender” had me screaming, let me tell you), this one left me surprisingly cold. Kelsey’s explicit citation of “alternative facts” doesn’t help matters—there’s on the nose and then there’s On. The. Nose.—but I suspect my problem here is that Younger isn’t harder hitting. Kellyanne Conway is one of the worst people in America; Marylynne Keller is just a dishonest ditz with an unquenchable thirst for attention.
The troller: Dolly Wells
The trolled: Susan Miller
What elevates this short-lived troll is Wells, so stellar alongside real-life BFF Emily Mortimer in HBO’s underappreciated Doll & Em. She brings a light touch to the Season Two finale, which opens with the funeral for Kelsey’s boyfriend, Thad. (So does Dan Amboyer as his overly affectionate twin brother, Chad.) Clearly modeled on Miller, an “astrologer to the stars” and columnist for a number of fashion mags, Wells’ Stephanie Smith nails the brutal-insults-masquerading-as-cosmic-wisdom aspect of readings when she says of Diana, “You’re like a burning building without a hose in sight.”
The troller: Lois Smith
The trolled: Dame Barbara Cartland
Props to Younger for digging deep on this one: Cartland, the prolific English romance novelist, is not as hip as some of the series’ other references (she died, at age 98, in 2000), but Smith’s Lacroix, with her garish blue eye shadow, costume jewelry, and shocking pink pantsuit, is unmistakable. This would be even higher on the list if they didn’t dispatch her so quickly, and unceremoniously—Lacroix shuffles off this mortal coil fewer than five minutes into the episode, while seated on the toilet. (The way her rose-colored pumps slip under the stall door while Liza looks on is absolutely brilliant, though.)
The troller: Nadia Dajani
The trolled: Liza Miller
Megyn Vernoff is a cleverer gambit than she first appears, though she violates one of the traditional keys to an effective troll: an obvious referent. (Maybe I’m just not reading enough sex advice for women over 40.) She works, I think, because Dajani is such a charismatic presence, and because the Younger team sets her up to troll none other than Liza herself, who offers to doctor Vernoff’s messy manuscript. (As Maggie quips, “So you’re a 40-year-old pretending to be a 26-year-old who’s pretending to write in the voice of a 40-year-old?”) The result is one of the series’ many comic set-ups that’s also run through with poignant self-awareness, as Liza sees a depressing mirror image in the soused Vernoff—and realizes that there are limits to chasing youth when it means pretending to be someone else.
The troller: Ana Gasteyer
The trolled: Kathryn Stockett
After untold rejections, an unknown writer’s fable-like first novel about a Southern family is plucked from obscurity: The Scarf, or The Help? Here, Meredith’s arc diverges from Stockett’s, after it’s discovered that she’s plagiarized The Scarf, which Liza finds in Empirical’s slush pile, from a Russian book called The Babushka. (Ablene Cooper, a maid who once worked for Stockett’s brother, did sue the real-life author for using her likeness without permission, though that case was thrown out for exceeding the statute of limitations.) Whatever the relationship between the two, Younger treats the subplot as an opportunity to skewer Liza’s (and our own) credulousness when it comes to Cinderella stories—and Gasteyer treats it as an opportunity to knock her dissatisfied suburban schoolteacher right out of the park.
The troller: Bill Kocis
The trolled: Jeff Bezos
Throughout Younger’s run, one of Empirical’s fiercest competitors is Achilles, which wields its deep pockets like an industry-destroying (sorry, “disrupting”) cudgel. It’s not until the fourth season that we “meet” the company’s Dear Leader, Boomer Eastwood. At a splashy, exclusive retreat with on-site counselors for wi-fi withdrawal—where Kelsey is slated to appear on a “Future of Publishing” panel—the bald-headed tycoon “beams in” via hologram and reminds attendees to use their “Boomer Box,” which is a slightly creepier, more self-aggrandizing version of Alexa. Don’t you just love the Internet?
The troller: Joy Osmanski
The trolled: Marie Kondo
A staff meeting with Kagami about her Zen-inflected organizational treatise Blissful Living—reminiscent of Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—is mostly a way for Younger to troll its main cast. Diana, showing off, whiffs on her pronunciation of the Japanese title; Liza risks having her crush on Charles announced to the room; and all four protagonists are forced to confront their (screwed-up) priorities. “Look carefully at what you have written in your fourth quadrant. Whatever it is will destroy you,” Kagami says. “This is the vortex. The vortex of death.” So much for sparking joy.
The troller: Le Clanché du Rand
The trolled: the publishing business
The title of Mary Quigley’s P Is for Pigeon recalls one of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone mysteries, and from what I can gather from her public reading in Season Three, there’s at least an echo of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. (Not Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, which I have read, and is not about birds.) But the genius of Rand’s game performance, and of Younger’s slowest-burn troll of all, is that it does exactly what it’s designed to do, which is fade into the background. Though P Is for Pigeon debuts to acclaim, and is later long-listed for the Booker Prize, it takes a season-long backseat to know-nothing tech billionaires, “the Stoopid Girls,” a Fifty Shades of Grey-style potboiler, and an advice book written from the perspective of a dog. This one stings.
The troller: Kobi Libii
The trolled: John Green
All I needed for this “sick lit”/Fault in Your Stars jibe to work on me was to hear the name of Olive’s last bestseller: Hashtag, I’m Dying.
The troller: Jay Wilkison
The trolled: Me, in every way
Colin McNichol’s very existence is a roller-coaster ride. As far as I can gather, he’s just an archetype—Googling “hot male new yorker writers” didn’t help narrow things down—but booooyyyyy is he an archetype. Young, bespectacled, wildly successful, and so damn fine (the series’ costume department deserves a special Emmy for the barely-there red Speedo they tuck him into), he’s an object of desire and envy. I want to have him, and I want to be him, and then I want nothing to do with him. Because, in the end, he turns out to be a pompous ass whose writing isn’t as good as everyone seems to think. To paraphrase Mean Girls: Raise your hand if you’ve been personally victimized by Colin McNichol.
The trollers: Jane Krakowski and Justine Lupe
The trolled: Candace Bushnell and Cat Marnell
Younger is blessedly unafraid to troll even those closest to its own heart: In this case, the author behind one of its most important forebears (Sex and the City) and an author representative of its modern milieu (which owes as much to Vice as it does to Knopf). I’ve paired them together because Younger itself draws a connection between Annabelle and Jade, literary party girls at opposite ends of their careers. (There’s no small amount of Elizabeth Wurtzel in either, but that’s an allusion only Liza would get.) Still, the genius of Younger is that it’s sharp but never merciless: In Annabelle and Jade’s narcissistic antics, it’s possible to see an undercurrent of pathos, in which the pressures placed on women authors as public personas can all too easily become too much to bear.
The troller: David Wain
The trolled: male feminists
I’m hesitant to praise a character once lauded by Newsbusters (retch), but perhaps that’s what makes Wain’s over-the-top male feminist so effective: No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, Hugh Shirley is a total nightmare. He wears plastic breasts. He demands to be “paid like a woman”—instead of, say, advocating for women to be paid more. He laments that “the Washington Monument might as well have semen coming out of it.” And he’s terrible in bed. (Of course Diana has to find this one out the hard way.)
The troller: Christina Kirk
The trolled: motivational speakers generally; Elizabeth Gilbert in her Eat, Pray, Love/TED Talk phase specifically
An under-the-radar choice, perhaps, but Younger’s depiction of Stewart deserves extra credit for its subtle, uncanny approximation of Gilbert’s viral lecture on “creative genius,” blended with Lean In-style self affirmation and a dash of Tom Cruise’s bellicose T.J. Mackie in Magnolia. I don’t mean to throw Gilbert under the bus—her follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love, The Signature of All Things, is one of my favorite reads of recent vintage—but Stewart’s promise that pain is the fount of personal wisdom is as rich as Gilbert’s hand-wringing over the consequences of success. As Younger’s self-help guru might put it, get real.
The troller: Thorbjørn Harr
The trolled: Karl Ove Knausgård
The series’ first sustained author send-up homes in on the ideal target—the semi-autobiographical bloat of Knausgård’s six-part My Struggle—for its breezy, devilish sense of humor. From his gargantuan tome (it’s potential-murder-weapon big) to his grim, stereotypically “Scandinavian” affect, Bjornberg is a fine foil for the bright, optimistic Kelsey. I could’ve done without the young-editrix-sleeps-with-her-married-author subplot—chalk it up to freshman year growing pains—but Younger uses it as a chance to twist the knife when it comes to the belief, in literature as on TV, that “seriousness” is the prerequisite for art. I mean, his novel is titled Kaleidoscope of Life! If that’s not funny, I don’t know what is.
The troller: Richard Masur
The trolled: George R. R. Martin
The most clear-cut of Younger’s literary trolls is also its most hilarious. When Moore, the author of the blockbuster fantasy series Crown of Kings, wheels in on his motorized chair for the unveiling of the final installment, Masur’s resemblance to the portly, bearded Song of Ice and Fire scribe is only the beginning of the gag. In the space of 20 minutes, Diana chokes out some Kronish, Moore casts Liza as his fur bikini-clad Princess Pam Pam (a nice dig at Game of Thrones’s unequal distribution of bare skin), and scores of rabid, costumed fans gather in Times Square for a chance to wear the crown themselves. With cameos by Ice-T and Diane Rehm (“It’s so nice to be at event without Terry Gross here hogging the spotlight”) and a rather brilliant bit of foreshadowing (“Somebody important always dies,” Kelsey promises), “Secrets and Liza” is, essentially, the Younger literary troll as bottle episode. In other words, it’s perfect.
Younger airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on TV Land.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.