Six seasons ago, Younger premiered on TV Land as a show with a premise that sounded as though it would quickly run out of rope: Liza (Sutton Foster), 40 and newly divorced, is trying to start her life over by moving from the New Jersey suburbs to Brooklyn and finding a job in publishing. To do so, she poses as a 26-year-old, and, thanks to peppiness and good genes, she lands a job at venerable publisher Empirical Press. And everything works out just fine — for a while.
At first, this was just a set-up for lots of annoying jokes about Kids These Days and their gadgets and weird dating habits. Liza’s coworker Kelsey (Hilary Duff) is her main connection to the world of millennials, though she doesn’t initially know Liza’s secret. The two eventually start an imprint at Empirical called Millennial, where they chase authors who are YouTube sensations or acquire books about labradoodles.
But Younger managed to morph, at some point near the start of season two, into a surprisingly heartfelt (and often delightfully goofy) story about love, friendship, and navigating the changing world of book publishing, especially as more characters learned the truth about Liza’s age. Unlike the somewhat tonally similar series The Bold Type, Younger actually seems in tune with how its focal industry is changing; for example, in the most recent episode, “An Inside Glob,” one character was operating a company from a communal workspace (a la WeWork), rather than a traditional office. The show has often spoofed book publishing trends and even specific authors; a running gag that kicked off in season two featured a George R.R. Martin clone named “Edward L.L. Moore,” who writes a series of incredibly high-selling novels called Crown of Kings. You get it.
There’s always been a love triangle at Younger’s center. Soon after she moved to Brooklyn, Liza began dating Josh (Nico Tortorella), an incredibly sweet and successful tattoo artist nearly 15 years her junior who thought she was in her 20s. But there were also major vibes between Liza and her 40-something boss Charles (Peter Hermann), the publisher at Empirical, who was going through both a divorce and some career transitions. (Both men ultimately came to know her true age.)
Ever since, Younger fans have fallen into two camps: Team Josh and Team Charles. Team Josh-ers know that Liza and Josh’s chemistry is great, that Josh is never-endingly patient with Liza even though she started their relationship on false premises, that even though the two broke up under painful circumstances a while ago, they’ve managed to maintain a solid friendship — and the possibility of reuniting always lurks around the corner.
Team Charles-ers, on the other hand, find him to be a better match for Liza — they’re of a similar age, they both have children already, and they’ve both been through painful divorces from absentee spouses. They see the world through similar eyes. Charles is kind, wealthy, and also generally a good guy. And there’s obvious electricity between them. (Also, Charles has a silver fox thing going, and it, uh, works for him.)
As the curtain lifted on season six, Liza was finally with Charles, who handed over his job as publisher to Kelsey and left Empirical, avoiding the publicly dicey situation of the boss dating the underling. (Though Charles, Josh, and Kelsey all know Liza’s real age, the world doesn’t yet — it doesn’t look so good for an associate editor at an imprint called Millennial to be in her 40s.) Josh, meanwhile, had gone through a painful breakup with an Irish girl named Claire, after a botched marriage of convenience intended to ensure that Claire could stay in the US. But he found out, a few months after they split, that Claire was pregnant, and he’d soon get the wish that broke up him and Liza in the first place: to be a father.
I confess that I have always, despite the potential squickiness of Charles wooing a much younger woman who is also his employee, been mostly Team Charles. Josh is great, and Liza and Josh are great together. But he deserves what he wants — to be a father — and Liza, who has a college-age daughter, is completely reasonable in not wanting to do it all over again.
But I’ve been growing impatient with Charles this season, and after watching “An Inside Glob,” I’ve finally arrived at a realization.
Charles kinda sucks.
Charles needs to get his act together, and fast
Plenty of things happen in this episode — Josh takes care of his baby daughter overnight while Claire attends a conference; Liza’s roommate Maggie (Debi Mazar) treats a yeast infection in a very natural way; Liza and Kelsey try not to lose an important author to Mercury, a rival publishing imprint; Kelsey realizes that the stress of being publisher is so acute that she’s literally losing clumps of hair.
But the episode is also an inflection point for one of the mounting questions of season six: How is Mercury, an upstart and mysterious competitor, managing to steal Millennial’s prospective authors? In the season’s third episode, “The Unusual Suspect,” Liza began to suspect that Charles was the money behind Mercury, which is run by Kelsey’s on-again, off-again flame/frenemy Zane (Charles Michael Davis) — especially after seeing paperwork that revealed Charles was mortgaging his townhouse for a dollar amount that came suspiciously close to the advance Mercury offered to an author Millennial was courting.
In “An Inside Glob,” Liza’s suspicions are confirmed. Charles is funding Mercury. And Zane is actively trying to take down Millennial.
Up to this point, though it seemed obvious that’s where the season was heading, I hadn’t thought through the implications of this move. But “An Inside Glob” stops to consider those implications, which are considerable.
Zane and Kelsey have always been competitive with one another, so his involvement isn’t that surprising. But what on earth is Charles doing? First of all, he’s been chairing the board of Empirical/Millennial without disclosing his ties to Mercury, which is already up and running. That’s a clear conflict of interest. It’s not until Liza rightly calls him out on that conflict — prompting him to mawkishly beg for time to “figure it out” — that he finally resigns his post on the Empirical board. (No, Charles. You’re a grown man. Get it together before you start investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, not after.)
But even worse, he’s been purposely keeping Liza in the dark while scheming with Zane behind her back, expressly to take down the publisher in which which Liza is now deeply invested as an editor at its star imprint. It’s sabotage, and besides the obvious question — why didn’t Empirical force a non-compete on Charles when he left — it’s a terrible thing to do to your new girlfriend, who’s yearned to be with you for years.
Look, I understand that Charles wants to do something. And book publishing is all he knows. Empirical was started by his father. Book publishing is in his blood.
But come on, man. Try something else. Invest in a digital media startup. Do some philanthropy. Learn to code. Try your hand at crochet. Just don’t start actively plotting to take down the family company you willingly left and lie to the girlfriend for whom you left it, then put her job in danger.
It’s doubtless that Charles is planning to offer Liza a job at Mercury in the future. Surely Charles has some kind of plan. But I deeply hope that Liza is not going to put up with this kind of needling that goes straight to the heart of why she lied about her age in the first place: her career.
I’ve rarely heel-turned on a character so fast. Now I — and, I’d imagine, a good number of other Team Charles-ers — have found myself reevaluating a lot about this guy, who for so long seemed stuck in some precarious situations but ultimately not a bad dude. Maybe his ethically dubious advances toward his (ostensibly younger) employee were signals of a much larger problem.
Since I’ve enjoyed Younger and its storytelling for so many seasons, I’m giving the show the benefit of the doubt, and I’m extremely curious to see what it has in store for Charles and Liza (and Josh and everyone) in the rest of season six.
But I can only hope that it’s aware of what it’s doing, and aware of what one of its strengths has always been. Younger is a show about the sorts of ageism that both younger and older women run into in every aspect of their lives — in the workplace, in dating relationships, and in trying to lean in, have it all, and maintain some semblance of an authentic self at the same time. And no hotshot former publisher or love triangle plot is worth the loss of that much self-respect.
Younger airs on TV Land on Wednesday nights at 10 pm EST. Full episodes of the current season stream on TV Land’s site and app (with cable login), and previous seasons are available on Hulu. You can also watch current episodes on Apple TV.