Friday, July 31, 2015

Women, Interrupted: Hindsight and Younger

Brian Kerwin and Laura Ramsay in Hindsight, on VH1.

Apparently I'm due for a midlife crisis, or at least that's what television is telling me – loudly. Sure. I know how old I am (and if I forget, Facebook is always there to eagerly remind me) but aside from a rapidly greying beard and a still growing list of chronic aches and pains, I have only rarely found myself dwelling morbidly on that fact. But 2015 seems to be the season of the midlife reversal. It began (for me) with Showtime's Happyish, which established quickly, with a bittersweet birthday party around his kitchen table, that its depressive protagonist Thom Payne was celebrating 44 exhausting years. Sure, Thom is played is played by the 49-year-old Steve Coogan, but it was enough to give this Gen-Xer pause. Today, I'm writing about two midlife shows from across the gender divide, VH1's Hindsight and TV Land's Younger. Both series tells stories of 40-something women facing up to the choices they've made, and who – through varying circumstances – suddenly find themselves living lives of women in their mid-20s. The first is essentially an escapist prime time soap with a fantasy flourish, and the second a comedy/drama that delivers laughs and poignant moments of self-discovery, through the lens of some moments of surprisingly pointed social commentary. Both shows have already finished their short first seasons and both were renewed for next year, but if you haven't watched them yet, Younger is the one to catch up on before its new season begins early in 2016.

Hindsight premiered in January, and ended its 10-episode season at the end of March, but I confess I only tuned in recently, intrigued by its time-travel premise and (I should admit) looking for a light one-hour series to fill the "show to watch while I fold my laundry" gap still left open since Lifetime's Drop Dead Diva ended its 6-year run last summer. Diva fit that bill perfectly, though it admittedly shifted from a genuine guilty pleasure to a embarrassed ambivalence for its last, increasingly improbable, two seasons. I am still shaking my head at the painful twists and turns the show took leading up to its final episodes, but I can still honestly say that my ironing always got done. It turned out that the overlap of Hindsight with Diva is more than circumstantial: both are fairly straight-ahead genre series (Drop Dead Diva, light legal drama, and Hindsight, soap opera) with ambitious, if largely undeveloped, primary conceits.

Created by former Jane by Design and Ghost Whisperer producer Emily Fox, Hindsight opens in 2015 with 43-year-old Becca Brady (Laura Ramsay) on the eve of her second wedding. Plagued by ambivalence and regret in her personal life and frustrated by her stalled professional life, she finds herself thrown back 20 years in time, and wakes up – in her own body – on the very morning of her first wedding.

Sarah Goldberg and Laura Ramsay in Hindsight.
I have written at length on time travel stories (Continuum, 12 Monkeys, Outlander, Doctor Who, Safety Not Guaranteed), and it is no secret that I have a particular affection for them. Hindsight falls into the broad category of what might be called "romantic time travel." Time travel is mainly the set-up for what is to come, and the mechanics and metaphysics of it don't matter much beyond the very fact of it. There is no talk of paradoxes or alternate universes, and there is little attempt to explain or make sense of it, beyond taking the premise at face value. (Hindsight's broad premise may remind some Canadian viewers of the much more psychologically-nuanced CBC series Being Erica, whose four seasons aired on CBC in Canada, and on Soapnet in the US, from 2009 to 2011, but the similarities are entirely superficial.) We spend the first act in 2015, and, by the 12-minute mark of the first hour, all subsequent action takes place in the Manhattan of 1995. The first thing you'll note that is the production makes little effort – beyond changing hair styles – to make the characters we meet in those first dozen minutes looks two decades older than the versions we meet in 1995. This might seem like a nitpicky point, but it is actually revealing of the narrative ambition of the series as a whole. Becca, played by the 32-year-old Ramsay, doesn't make an especially convincing 43-year-old, and once she wakes up in her 23-year-old self, she spends more time wondering at her 90s wardrobe than her suddenly youthful body, for example.

The suspension of disbelief extends far beyond the (as yet) unexplored metaphysics of the series. There's nothing essentially problematic about leaving its time travel conceit unexplained, of course. It is clearly not what the show is about. Outlander is a perfect example of a series that only toys with the broader implications of the main character's trip through time in order to focus – unflinchingly – on the course of events the trip initiates. (The second season of Outlander, with the story moving from 18th century Scotland to 18th century Paris, is slated to air on Starz in early 2016.) Hindsight certainly has comparable ambitions: it is about relationships – friends, lovers, and family – and its fantasy components play an understandably negligible role in how the story proceeds. If only those stories were more consequential. Its primary theme – and in this, it shares its best ambitions with Younger – is female friendship, and it is strongly implied that if there is a single "reason" for her trip, it is to repair her relationship with her estranged best friend, Lolly (played with quirky charm by relative newcomer and Canadian Sarah Goldberg). The series' best and most touching scenes are also its quietest, moments of sweet intimacy between the two 20-something friends. But what is missing, as Becca toys with the affections of Sean, her on-again-off-again bohemian, struggling artist fiancé (Australian Craig Horner), and insinuates herself into the life of Andy, her buttoned-downed future fiancé (Nick Clifford), is any real indication that this mercurial young woman has the soul of a much older woman inside her. Younger Becca seems to carry little wisdom from her two extra decades of life. Becca's life is basically cut in half with a knife in the show's opening minutes, and she barely seems to notice. She never expresses any real sense of loss from her missing years, and most gestures towards the future come mainly in passing frustration on the lack of iPhones and Keurig coffee makers in her life. You might expect someone who is suddenly thrust back into her 20s to feel some level of dissatisfaction with her social sphere, or perhaps with the patronizing way people treat younger women, but the way Becca is written it is as if all she carried from her older self is information, but no lived experience beyond the broadest terms (e.g. her first marriage ended in disaster, so let's break up with him; her brother will have trouble with drugs, so let's try to keep him clean). In short, in the spectrum of pop culture time travellers, Becca Brady is more Biff Tannen than Marty McFly – and she seems, admittedly with little success, to be treating the knowledge she bears about her own life as her private Grays Sport Almanac.

By the end of the first season, there is some indication that the show knows that Becca has been unthinking and even cruel in her recent decisions, but it is hard by then to care too much about her. Some of the soap opera intrigue is compelling (Becca's animosity and ultimate sympathy with her future fiancé's current girlfriend for example is one of the more interesting developing relationships) and the 90s nostalgia is in full swing (the series uses period music to great effect on the soundtrack), but it would take a real turnaround for me to return for its second season.

Debi Mazar and Sutton Foster in Younger, on TV Land.

On its own, Hindsight might have been a pleasant diversion, but sitting next to the far more successful Younger, it pales dramatically. Younger, with its half-hour format and with no metaphysical bells and whistles; offers a more nuanced portrayal of adult friendship, the trials, regrets and opportunities of aging, and the up- and downsides of second chances. Based on Pamela Redmond Satran's 2005 novel of the same name, Younger stars Tony-Award-winning Sutton Foster (Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Drowsy Chaperone, and currently performing in The Wild Party) as Liza Miller, a recently-divorced 40-year-old mom of a college-age daughter who is suddenly thrust back into the workforce after a 15-year hiatus. After a series of frustrating interviews for entry-level positions in her chosen field of publishing (and being interviewed by patronizing 20-somethings), an unexpected misunderstanding concerning her age in a bar leads her to chop fourteen years off her resume, and try to get a job as a 26-year-old. The charade turns out to be more challenging – and more revelatory – than she'd first expected however.

Younger 's 12-episode first season ran on TV Land from March to June. Created by Sex and the City's Darren Star, Younger marks an ambitious new stage for the cable channel; Younger is the first single-camera comedy for TV Land, which was previously best known for its throwback sitcoms like Hot in Cleveland. Foster's natural charm anchors the series, but she is also joined by a talented cast, including fellow Broadway veteran Miriam Show (co-starring with Sutton in The Wild Party), Debi Mazar (Entourage) and a surprisingly watchable Hilary Duff (Lizzie McGuire). It is one of the strongest ensemble of actresses currently on television, all of which adds up to a diverse array of female characters, with distinct personalities, ambitions, and failings. As with Hindsight, the series attempts to portray a full life for its protagonist, as she struggles to maintain a balance of the personal, professional, and romantic. Younger notably, however, succeeds in doing so, managing to pack more drama, humour, and genuine intrigue into its half-hour of television than Hindsight does in its one hour. Her relationship with her long-time friend and new roommate Maggie (Mazar), as well as her developing friendship with the younger Kelsey (Duff) are both portrayed with sensitivity and a sense of genuine fun. Younger also delivers on the romantic comedy front, as Liza begins dating Josh (Nico Tortorella, The Following), the young man who initially mistook her for his own age, a free-living tattoo artist who falls for the person Liza is pretending to be.

The plot, of necessity, puts Liza in situations where she must lie – and lie regularly – to the bulk of those she meets, a feature which grows more and more distressing to the viewer as the season proceeds and we grow to genuinely like those people and become invested in those relationships. What makes the Younger work, despite this, is that Sutton's Liza is clearly feeling that same distress – not only as her relationship with Josh, but also with Kelsey (Duff), the mid-20s go-getter editor she befriends in her new job of the publishing firm, and (in a story that really is only beginning in this first season), with her more age-appropriate interactions with a handsome, recently-separated publishing executive at the firm (played by Peter Hermann, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit). Duff's performance is also worth noting here, portraying Kelsey with a youthful frankness, and a realistic balance of ambition and sincerity.

Sutton Foster, Molly Bernard and Hilary Duff in Younger.
This first season Younger also has its share of broad swipes at the Gen-X vs. Millennial divide (hashtag gags and a subplot involving recent fads in body hair maintenance), but as the characters and their relationships deepen, those moments thankfully give way to more character-based connections and disconnects. There are more than a few soap opera elements throughout Younger, but what makes the story compelling is genuine interest in the characters, their lives, and the choices they make. (And those very same aspects of the series – for example, a storyline like Kelsey's problematic affair with a new writer – are also the moments that that the show's seems most refreshingly nonjudgmental, treating that story as the chance to get to know Kelsey better, rather than intrigue for the sake of intrigue.)

But for all that, the real reason to watch Younger is Sutton Foster (last seen on television on ABC Family's short-lived Bunheads, 2012-13). The 40-year-old actress never strains credulity as Liza navigates her new life as a fresh-faced 26-year-old. She finds her new Millennial peers both invigorating and exhausting, and she seems as surprised as we are at the depth these new friendships take. Professionally, Liza suffers the indignities of a workplace which expects little from their young staff members – and rewards them even less – but quickly adapts to the new social media-centred corporate existence. The situation also forces Liza to reflect regularly on the effects and experiences of motherhood and ageing, which leads to some of the show's most unflinching and blunt monologues.

All parallels with Hindsight invariably land in Younger's favour. Liza gets her job, despite the prejudices of the industry's hiring practices, because she is qualified, talented, creative, and adventurous – and she is successful for precisely the same reasons. In short, because she deserves it. What Becca deserves, however, is often less than clear. Her successes, both professionally and socially, often feel like the result of a kind of retroactive insider trading. For example, she wins the confidence of her new bosses – at a start-up literary zine – not by demonstrating a work ethic or wisdom beyond her years, but instead by effectively plagiarizing viral marketing. And as a result, those regular moments when her choices blow up in her face feel just as often like just desserts. Becca is a challenging character to root for.. There is of course nothing inherently wrong with an anti-hero story, but Hindsight isn't that show. The result, unfortunately for Hindsight, is that Becca is simply unappealing, instead of being complex.

Younger returns to TV Land for its second season in January 2016, which means you have six months to catch up on the first season. The date for Hindsight's return to VH1 has not yet been announced.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.          

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