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Darren Star On How TV Has Changed From ‘90210’ to ‘Younger’

Darren Star On How TV Has Changed From '90210' to 'Younger'

If Darren Star tried to lie about his age, he wouldn’t get away with it. The legendary television creator’s legacy stretches back to the days of “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Melrose Place,” followed up by a little-seen show called “Sex and the City.” But for his most recent series, he strayed away from the worlds of broadcast and premium cable, bringing the charming comedy “Younger” to TV Land.

READ MORE: Watch: ‘Younger’ Pilot, Now Streaming on Hulu, Says Sutton Foster Passes for 26

“Younger,” which premiered last month, stars Sutton Foster as Liza, a 40-year-old woman who lies about her age to reinvent her life, and discovers a whole new side to herself as a (fake) 26-year-old. Indiewire spoke with Star the day that “Younger” got its official pick-up for a Season 2; below, he reveals the biggest changes he’s seen over his decades on television, which of his cult works he wishes would get the Netflix treatment and how the writing staff of “Younger” lived out the premise of the show in the real world.

Congrats on the Season 2 pick-up! When did you know that was coming?

Basically this morning! [laughs]

Did you have a good feeling about it going in?

Yeah, you know what, I kind of feel like we got to do the show we wanted to do. It was well-received. It’s really a new direction for a network like TV Land, so we kind of have to grow the show over there. But they have a lot of faith, and they’ve been showing it. That’s all you can ask.

Talk to me about the origin of “Younger.” When did it first come across your plate?

I sort of found the book a number of years ago. I don’t exactly remember the circumstances — how I saw it — but I always thought it was a great premise for a TV series or a movie. It wasn’t available when I first saw it, and then when it became available again I pursued it. I hadn’t actually taken it anywhere, and I met the head of TV Land, Keith Cox, who I mentioned this to. And he said they wanted to change the direction of the network, and he said, “We absolutely love this. We’re going to make the show.” When you get that kind of enthusiasm going in from a network…

That’s definitely worth pursuing.

Yeah, exactly. Rather than changing minds somewhere else, I’ll go where I’m wanted.

Did your initial pitch include the idea that there are these three really prominent characters who are women over the age of 40?

Not specifically that. It was mostly just the concept of a woman trying to reinvent her life by pretending to be 26. But I always imagined it as a series, and it would be this multi-generational comedy. A comedy about women of different generations, who are engaging in all sorts of different ways with each other. When doing a series, I look for something that has an idea you can think about, something that I’m noticing and aware of and thinking about, because when you’re doing a series, you think about more than just jokes… you know, when you’re doing a comedy, you think about what’s going to reflect people’s experiences, in a way.

Observing this phenomenon of what happens when people turn 40, what was your takeaway?

I think 40 is symbolic of saying, “Okay, there’s a generational shift.” Whether you want to say it’s 40, whether you want to say you’re gonna experience it at the age of 45… 40 is, let’s say, the symbolic age when you’re looking back and saying, “Okay, I’m not the young person in the room anymore. Things have changed. People are doing things differently. I’ve been doing things the same way and thinking things are the same, but they’re not.” The acknowledgement that there is a different generation with different ways of perceiving the world and engaging the world. And especially this generation that has been weaned on social media, which has become the dominant force in terms of the way we communicate and do business with each other. They have an innate understanding of it. People in their 40s don’t have an innate understanding, though they can and do understand it. They can learn to be fluent in it, but they have to learn. It’s not as natural. They’re learning a foreign language, as opposed to being raised with the language. I think that is significant as a generation difference.

Something you mentioned earlier about doing things the same way over and over again, and then you look back, at how other people are doing it… I never thought about the idea of what Sutton Foster’s character Eliza does being as a growth experience, necessarily.

Absolutely. I think you’ve got it right, about something you at least have a relationship to or know a little bit about. I certainly know a lot of women and friends who have taken time off from work, they raise their kids, and they are just as smart as ever, and they want to get back to work, and it’s been 10 or 12 years. It’s not so easy to get back to work with that 10 or 12 year gap on your resume.

We’ve been talking largely about the question of age. For you, beyond the question of age, what is “Younger” about for you?

“Younger” is about reinvention and how age is very much a state of mind. I think the show is ultimately about reinvention. I do think it explores, ultimately, the differences between generations, through the prism of reinvention. That reinvention is possible.

That’s inspiring.

Yeah, I think it has a positive message. Some people might think “oh, the message is, women have to pretend to be younger to succeed.” I don’t think that’s the message. I think it’s about the fact that a woman wants a job, she wants to reinvent her life, and finds all these resources to do it. I just love the theme of reinvention.

In terms of approaching the premise: It’s a concept that lends itself pretty easily to the standard rom-com three act structure, but in terms of approaching it as a TV show — when you know that in theory, at least in the viewer’s eyes, the show is over once her secret gets out — how do you go about constructing a season-long narrative that could potentially go on for multiple seasons?

TV is ultimately about characters, not story. I think TV today is all about making big turns off a cliff, story-wise, where I think you’ve got to wonder as an audience, “Okay, now what?” I think we’re always looking to move the story in surprising directions. And not keep it static.

I would go back to “Beverly Hills 90210,” when they were talking about a sequel after the second season, and they were talking about the sequel being a college show, and I said, “These kids are gonna go to college in a few years, they’re not gonna stay in high school.” And it actually hadn’t occurred to everybody at that time that characters would evolve and grow and go to college. At the time, it was like, Okay, if you’re doing a series about kids in high school, they stay in high school for 10 years. Even then, the characters and people investing in it was not going to be acceptable. So the story of “Beverly Hills 90210” did not have to be characters in high school for 10 years.

It’s not called “Beverly Hills High.”

Exactly. So my point is, we have to keep the show growing and evolving story-wise, in surprising ways. And we will. That’s the fun of doing it.

Is there a multi-year arc in your head?

Oh, God no. Absolutely not.

You can’t tell me what the fifth season finale is?

I do not know the fifth season finale, any more than I’m sure the creators of “Lost” knew the second season finale. [laughs] But I feel like what we have and are blessed with are wonderful characters and wonderful actors. And for a TV series, that’s what you want.

READ MORE: How Whit Stillman Made the TV Leap, From ‘Metropolitan’ to Amazon, for ‘The Cosmopolitans’

Something I really responded to is the fact that over the course of the season, every character really gets an opportunity to grow beyond stereotypes. Hilary Duff, that’s a character who could easily fall into caricature, and instead she has a really compelling arc. And it’s a different kind of structure than pure episodic, because you’re layering it in episode by episode.

I think that you want to create a compelling storyline over time. One thing we all talked about, that I spoke about with the network, that I think they were very on board with, was let’s create a bit of a comedic soap, a story where the episodes can stand alone, but there’s a bit of a continuing storyline. You’ve got to engage viewers like that. When you’re doing a single-camera show, it’s more buying into a level of reality. I think a sitcom, a four-camera show, doesn’t require that so much. I think with a film show, you just need the characters to grow.

Is that something you feel has changed over the years?

I think audiences are expecting interesting and surprising storytelling from shows they watch. They really want to be engaged in the series and the characters. I think it’s because the audiences are more sophisticated.

On a storytelling sophistication level, is there stuff you feel like you can get away with now you couldn’t get away with 20 years ago?

Oh, absolutely. I feel like there’s such a move towards unsympathetic characters. I think the rule was, “Be careful not to create unlikable characters.” But that rule has pretty much gone out the window. There’s a lot more grey area, which is much more interesting.

What’s key for finding that balance? For example, Miriam Shor’s character [Liza’s boss at the publishing company] could easily pull into kind of a villain sort of trope.

I think at the beginning, in the pilot, she started very broad, and we were very conscious, working on the series, like, we need to humanize this character. Not throwing out what’s fun about her, but getting more down to what’s real about a woman like that. And finding a compassion for that character, without losing the fun.

For you, is it looking at like, let’s add an extra dimension to her, let’s add her dating life, that sort of thing?

I think it’s not so much throwing in story, but kind of thinking about her a little more deeply. I think she’s a good example because she’s a very easy character to point to at the beginning of the series as a little bit one-dimensional. In general, I think writing characters, no one is 100 percent good or bad, and certainly the bad characters never think they’re bad themselves. Even the worst characters don’t feel like they’re bad guys on the inside.

Were there ideas in the writer’s room where you were like, “Hold on, we’ll save that for Season 2?”

I hope so. Sure. There are definitely stories we didn’t get to. Part of the fun of doing the show, living the experience of this character, is being in a room with other awesome writers in their 40s and writers in their 20s, all sharing our experiences. And literally living the premise of the show together.

What were you most surprised about from the 20-something side?

How much smarter they are than me when I was in my 20s. [laughs] Just incredible cultural consumers, with knowledge of pop culture. It’s amazing to me — certainly with the writers we work with — how much fun they are to hang out with. I have to say, we all, and I probably speak for other writers in their 40s in the room, we love hanging out with the writers in their 20s. I could totally understand why a woman in her 40s would want to keep that lie going.

What do you think it is about people in their 20s now, versus people in their 20s then, that creates that difference?

I just feel like there’s so much access to media. They’re able to consume so much. People that love television, movies, any kind of media — the ability to consume so much and so easily — is something that wasn’t around. When I was in my 20s and I wanted to see episodes of an old TV series, I would have to go to the Museum of Television and Radio. Now, everything is at your fingertips.

There’s someone at Indiewire who’s like 25, and she’s the biggest “Twin Peaks” fan on staff.

And just the passion they have for pop culture. Eliot Glazer, who’s on our staff, has a tattoo of Bea Arthur on his arm.

All this means that your past work has been getting seen by new generations. Is there anything in particular that you’re embarrassed is getting seen by the light of day?

Luckily, the things I’m really embarrassed about did not see the light of day. No, I’m not embarrassed about any of it. 

Reverse question, what have you done that you’re excited new generations are getting to see?

I would love this generation, people that really haven’t seen it, to be able to watch “Grosse Pointe,” which is a show that I loved. It was on the WB. It was maybe 15 years ago? It was a sort of underwatched, really great show. It was parodying teen soaps. It was like behind the scenes. A lot of shows that followed have done that kind of thing. I think in a way it still seems kind of fresh if you watch it.

Is that one of those shows that has a hard time with getting new distribution because of music rights?

I don’t know. It did come out on DVD, I just don’t know if it streams anywhere. And I kind of feel like if you’re not streaming, you’re just not being seen.

And honestly, I wish “Central Park West” was available. That’s a show that didn’t get a DVD release, didn’t get streamed, and it was such a ’90s show.

John Barrowman is a much bigger name now than he used to be.

Sure, there were a lot of great names in that show. For me it was sort of like the dress rehearsal for “Sex and the City.” It was like, a big glamorous show set in New York. Fun, over the top, great fashion. It was unfortunately the wrong network at the wrong time, but it was a lot of fun.

You’ve worked across the map, network-wise. How does TV Land compare in that experience?

I would say TV Land is very close to having a premium cable experience, in terms of doing the show, kind of like getting who we want, the support, smart notes, not a lot of notes, and really following their gut, not being 100 percent ratings dependent. They respond to good reviews and buzz, I think, is really important to them.

I know you said you were coming in as part of a brand change. Is there anything specific to the show you did differently because it was going to TV Land?

For better or for worse, no. Going to any network right now, I think it’s about the passion the network feels for you and the show, and knowing that they’re gonna support something. I do feel like even I’m not looking at networks anymore. I’m looking at shows and finding shows. And so people are finding the show and finding TV Land from the show, in some ways.

“Younger” airs on Tuesdays at 10pm on TV Land. 

READ MORE: Broadway Veteran Sutton Foster on Turning 40 But Playing ‘Younger’

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