I’d meant to title this feature on Younger’s fifth season slightly differently—until Nico Tortorella bristled at the suggestion.
“My first response to your question is a follow-up question,” says the actor, who plays Josh, an impetuous tattoo artist, on TV Land’s delightfully brisk comedy. “Why are you calling this ‘The Boys of Younger’ and not ‘The Men of Younger’?
It’s a term I thought harmless — “I met a boy at the bar last night,” a common part of my lexicon, might refer to any man under 40 — but of course that’s the point: The way we discuss sex and gender is often indicative of our culture’s profound problems with both. As Tortorella’s co-star Peter Hermann notes, these phrases “make up the steaming pile of shit that we’ve used to excuse male behavior.”
“He’s from a different generation,” says Hermann, who plays gallant publishing executive Charles Brooks on the series, running through a handful of the most familiar examples. That’s just a guy being a guy. Boys will be boys. He doesn’t mean it. He’s just joking around.”
Though Younger has always had its finger on the cultural pulse—among its many charms are its brilliant takedowns of literary figures from Karl Ove Knausgård to Marie Kondo—the subject of #MeToo comes up not simply because it’s in the ether, but because the series, created by Sex and the City’s Darren Star, confronts it head on. In the season premiere, ”#LizaToo,” protagonist Liza Miller (Sutton Foster) finds herself in a difficult position with the lecherous Edward L.L. Moore (Richard Masur), a cash cow for the publisher who’s been accused of making “lewd and inappropriate comments” to women. To Younger’s credit, the episode works through a range of responses to the allegations: Liza, afraid to rock the boat, describes Moore as a flirty old man; Charles and Diana (Miriam Shor) arrange a training seminar; unscrupulous up-and comer Zane Anders (Charles Michael Davis) waves off the accusation as part of a smear campaign from a rival publisher. Similarly, my interviews with the male members of the main cast are reflective of the halting progress we’ve made in naming, much less addressing, sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse.
“There are probably few, if any, men, who don’t have some hard thinking to do about the attitudes that they have had towards women,” Hermann says. “The tricky thing is that they are so ingrained in our culture that they are all but unconscious. That doesn’t mean that men need to be taken to task any less for them, but I think that the societal attitudes that have led to the necessity of this seismic moment of #MeToo and #TimesUp—it’s in the water. It’s in the culture.”
As Tortorella elaborates, in taking issue with my use of the word “boys,” the diminutive reduces men’s responsibility as allies in the #MeToo movement, rendering them as adolescents who don’t know any better.
“It’s about calling people out for who they are and what they are,” as he says of that responsibility. “The boys can’t be here for the women. The men have to be here for the women.”
Part of the task, then, is for men to recognize the limits of their perspective and educate themselves about the experiences of women and non-binary people, who confront varieties of sexual intimidation, coercion, and violence with unconscionable frequency. (An online poll conducted in February found that 81% of women have experienced sexual harassment; fully 1 in 6 American women will be victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes, according to RAINN.) It’s a challenge even Younger, which is ahead of the pop cultural curve in highlighting the issue, might need to improve on.
“No, we didn’t have discussions,” Davis says, when I ask if the male members of the cast drew insights from their female colleagues, on and off screen, in preparation for the season premiere. “The writers did, though. Once we got the script, it was already solidified.”
This isn’t exactly satisfying for a series in which women are the main draw—in addition to Foster and Shor, Hilary Duff and Debi Mazar are standouts as Liza’s closest friends—and the target audience. (One rather dispiriting discovery I made while perusing IMDb in the course of writing this piece: Of Season Four’s 12 episodes, a woman is credited as director on only one.) Especially since Younger’s premise is inextricable from gendered expectations. Though all but a handful of characters have since learned the truth, the series begins with Liza, a 40-year-old divorcée who’s been out of the workforce for years, posing as a 26-year-old in order to land her job as an editorial assistant at Empirical. The point is, as Hermann says, “we have a long-ass way to go”—which means now is no time to rest on the cultural and institutional changes achieved so far.
Still, ”#LizaToo” is among the deftest handlings of the subject to air on TV since last autumn, when the movement became one of the year’s most important stories. In this, Younger is reminiscent of The Good Fight, which has emerged as the medium’s best approximation on TV of the “bunga bunga” aspect of the American political climate. Both are playful and pointed, often twisting TV convention to their own ends. Younger’s defining examples may be its penchant for objectifying its men—with a pronounced wink. (Shor’s character, the regal Diana Trout, treats the hunks in the ensemble, as the kids say, like a snack.) It’s something that both Tortorella and Davis are used to, and at the same time wary of.
“I’m all for playing that role on this show,” Tortorella says, admitting that it’s given him a much wider platform than he might have had otherwise. But he’s also become “pickier” about the scripted material that comes across his desk that he was “even six months ago,” lest he be typecast as “the hot dude on television.”] It’s hard for people to take me seriously sometimes,” he adds, mentioning the at times frustrating response to his poetry collection, all of it is you., published earlier this year. “If that’s my biggest fuckin’ problem right now, I’m honestly not going to complain, but it’s something to think about moving forward for how we fetishize any sort of body in the media.”
Davis, too, has learned to draw the line—from the women he’s worked with, in particular The Originals’ Claire Holt.
“There have been some things, publicity-wise, where they ask, ‘Would you mind doing this and maybe taking off an article of clothing while you’re doing it?’ And I go, ‘No, absolutely not,’ he says. “Just because I’m a man doesn’t mean I have no objection to it.”
If I felt chastened by Tortorella’s own objection to my intended headline, and thrilled to avoid the breezy inanities of most promotional interviews, I’ll cop to enjoying a bit of a laugh with Hermann—who, at 50, is two decades older than his male castmates—when I asked him the same question about being objectified:
“My God, you had me at ‘hunk.’”
Season Five of Younger premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on TV Land.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.