A lot happens on Younger that its main character, Liza Miller (Sutton Foster), doesn’t expect. And as a 40-year-old woman who lied about her age to get back into the publishing industry after raising her daughter, she’s had to roll with every surprise to keep pretending she’s 26. To protect her lie, Liza has faced blackmail and backstabbing. She’s even faced death, when the villainous Thad (Dan Amboyer) threatens to expose her and is killed by a construction accident before he can tell anyone her real age (a lucky accident for Liza, less so for Thad).
For every twist in Liza’s story, Younger uses an adept episode structure that matches the ups and downs that Liza feels. Rather than using a traditional sitcom structure that wraps up an episode’s story in 22 minutes, save for a few two-parters here and there, Younger’s episodes often end on cliffhangers, teasing the next step of Liza’s journey right before the credits roll.
“I know what’s going to happen, and even when I’m watching the episodes, I’m tortured,” Foster says.
Younger’s cliffhangers are especially effective because they show the first step of what comes next, rather than stopping in the middle of the action. This provides forward momentum for the story and a focus on the emotional fallout for the characters, rather than just what will happen in the plot.
“I think of it more like as a storytelling device where you’re promising the audience something for the next week, and you’re always going past the point of feeling like, ‘I can’t believe they did that,’” says creator Darren Star, whose other TV series include the rom-com predecessor to Younger, Sex and the City, as well as Melrose Place and Beverly Hills, 90210.
One memorable example of a cliffhanger in Younger is in Season Two, when Thad dies. (“We were just dying at the craziness of that whole storyline,” Foster says.) Thad finds out Liza is lying about her age and says he’ll tell if Liza doesn’t keep Thad’s own secret—Thad he’s been cheating on his fiancé, Liza’s friend and coworker, Kelsey (Hilary Duff). After Thad threatens Liza, a beam from a nearby construction site falls on him.
“It didn’t come out of nowhere,” Star says. “In fact, right after we filmed it somebody was really gravely injured in a construction accident in New York with a piece of construction debris falling on their head.”
There is no doubt Thad dies—you can see him crumple. The question remaining for the viewer is how the characters will respond to Thad’s death.
“The human stories of your characters should be more important than the insanity of the plot,” says Keith Cox, president of development and production for TV Land and the Paramount Network. “I think there are shows sometimes that over-cliffhang, so then it becomes the plot is greater than the characters, and sometimes that’s just a dangerous zone to get in.”
Younger’s cliffhangers are so expertly paced that the storytelling seems effortless and natural. But in reality, the twists come from many debates over what should happen in each of the 12 episodes that make up Younger’s seasons, starting months before shooting starts and sometimes up until the final table read.
A twist from early in the show’s run had the writers stumped. In Season One, Liza decides to tell the truth to her young, hot boyfriend, Josh (Nico Tortorella), and the writers were struggling with what came next.
“We’re trying to figure out what could happen,” says writer and executive producer Eric Zicklin. “Maybe she gets a call from the daughter and that sidelines her, or maybe it starts to rain and she can’t get to Josh’s. I mean every idea under the sun imaginable, we’re contemplating.”
Star is the one who came up with the solution: He suggested that when Liza showed up at Josh’s door and said they needed to talk, Josh would go down on her, delaying their conversation and ending the episode.
“There was a gasp in the room when he pitched it because no one was even thinking that way,” Zicklin says. “You had that feeling of, ‘Oh, that’s the kind of pitch that’s going to win the day here, and also that’s the kind of ending, or story twist, that we’re going to be seeking over and over again.’ It’s not always sexual, of course, but something unexpected that’s exciting and opens the door for unexpected futures.”
The best episode endings on Younger move the story forward at the same time as they excavate a deeper emotional truth. The end of Season Three perhaps best exemplifies this. Liza eventually tells Josh the truth, and their relationship progresses, leading Josh to propose. But before he can pop the question, he sees Liza kissing her boss, Charles (Peter Hermann), the other point of their love triangle. Liza and Josh break up, and Liza returns to her apartment to find Kelsey waiting for her. The season finale ends right after Liza tells Kelsey that she’s actually 40 years old and has a college-age daughter, risking both their friendship and Liza’s job.
This particular cliffhanger almost didn’t happen. Originally, the writers planned for Josh to tell Kelsey the truth because he was angry with Liza, rather than have Liza tell Kelsey the truth because she wants to be honest with her friend. It wasn’t until the table read for the final episodes that the writers changed their minds.
This cliffhanger is so effective because Kelsey is the most important person to Liza, and the episode’s structure reflects that by ending on their conversation. It also leaves the viewer wondering about Kelsey’s reaction and the emotional fallout, rather than just the plot point of whether Liza will actually tell her.
“I think that the biggest cliffhangers are emotional cliffhangers, and I think that, to me, is when the show is really working—because it means your audience is invested in your characters and their relationships,” Star says.
These emotional cliffhangers seem to be working at keeping people interested, including the cast.
“It’s fun for us, too, because we’re dying to find out what’s going to happen to our characters,” Foster says. “Often when a script lands in our inbox you’ll see everyone on the cast in a corner trying to frantically read through the script to see what’s going to happen.”
Younger has reached series-high viewership levels this season, and these cliffhanger endings likely have a lot to do with getting people to tune in.
“This was all part of our plan,” Cox says. His aim is to reshape comedy on the network to become appointment TV. When he reached out to Star to create a half-hour show for TV Land, he wanted the show to have the same “sticky” quality that the biggest dramas seemed to share, keeping viewers glued to their screens each week.
“In the landscape of television at the moment—and we’ve noticed this, not only as executives but certainly as TV consumers—it’s the dramas that were getting all the fanfare and the binge quality and the addictive viewing because of these serialized stories and cliffhangers,” Cox says.
This focus on heavily serialized storytelling in comedies indicates a larger shift that’s been going on in the industry.
“My point of view is, I think comedy was kind of built on syndication—that was the big payday,” Cox says. “But sometimes you can’t have both. If you’re trying to get to 100 that may be different than making sure you have the juiciest storylines that are building each week.”
Whether it’s because of a deluge of scripted series allowing shows to break free from the old ways of doing things or the rise of streaming, which provides a good way to catch up on heavily serialized storytelling, the business of comedies on TV is changing, and Younger is a part of that shift.
“I love background comedies and half-hour comedies where the old rules were, every episode has to end with the characters how you started,” Zicklin says. “And we’re doing just the opposite here.”
Younger airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on TV Land.
Rae Nudson is Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Real Life, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.