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Friday, 16 of April of 2021

Pretty Little Liars: The Season Thus Far

“Come find me, bitches.

Promotional graphic for Pretty Little Liars

Sometimes they are also Pretty Dirty Little Liars

You can’t be blamed if you haven’t watched this show. I wouldn’t even know about it if I wasn’t such a Gilmore Girls junkie and ABC Family wasn’t such a publicity whore during their commercial breaks. Seriously, the phrases “secret life” and “make it or break it” will be forever burned into my consciousness despite the fact I’ve only seen short clips of both that put together wouldn’t even amount to an episode. And then, even if you had seen a preview or two for it, you might’ve been like me and assumed some sort of “ghost in the machine” scenario, like some poor American reboot of Serial Experiements: Lain. The show wasn’t really made for me and I chose not to respond to it.

But Matt kept insisting I check it out. Since I’d already given Veronica Mars a whirl (which I liked a lot) and I gave my mother Lost Season 1 for Christmas, I decided to hit the Matt Owens Trifecta. He sold it to me as a departure from normal ABC Family fare, something more closely resembling the WB shows of the early 2000s (when Dawson’s Creek, Everwood, and One Tree Hill were at their schmaltziest). The production value is improved over shows like Secret Life of the American Teenager and Make It Or Break It and the writing was a lot tighter, he defended. So, since Hulu had the entire season up to this point available to watch, I decided I could try it out. I mean, I watched Life Unexpected; it’s not like I have a masculine reputation to upkeep. I have a Fashionista badge on Miso, for crissakes.

The show surprised me, however. I was taken by the opening sequence, a desaturated series of shots showing a body being prepared for a viewing and scored by an almost saccharine song about keeping secrets (although Aria shushing at the end almost made me turn the show off). And not only did I see the things Matt noted but I also found it interesting in other areas. I’m not saying you have to watch it but it’s something to keep your eye on. If you want to keep up without sitting through the first ten episodes (new episodes start Monday, January 3rd), let me take you through the highlights.

Allow me to disabuse you of the notion that this is about a dead girl trapped in the many devices of at a teenager’s disposal. This also isn’t a show about a dead girl communicating with her friends via technology to find her killer. Instead, this is a show about an omnipresent villain that communicates to a clique of girls for a vague purpose, the vagueness coming from the ambiguity of who is actually sending the messages. All the girls know is that they’re being watched by someone who simultaneously wants to destroy them with the secrets of their (PG-13) seedy lives but also begs to be caught.

The watcher refers to him/herself as “A,” the text-messaging shorthand for the girls’ friend Alison (Ali for short) who went missing a year prior. “A” likes to send snarky, venom-filled snipes in the voice of their absent (and soon-to-be-discovered deceased) friend. Alison is/was a queen bee though more sage and manipulative than Regina George. Visions of her, her advice, and her backdoor interactions with members of the clique are told in flashback, very similar to Lily on Veronica Mars. There are a vast number of suspects connected to Alison’s death and they all seem to have motive if not necessarily access.

The girls themselves used to be very close but were brought together by Alison as the nucleus. In the year between her disappearance and the discovery of her body, the friends split up and grew apart. You have Hanna, the “hag friend” (if you believe her to be that on this show; the “pretty” part of the title is not a misnomer) who rose up, slimmed down, and gussied-up to fill the vacuum Alison left as queen bee. There’s Emily, the girl who plays sports and, naturally, has feelings for the ladies (because, if you’re a girl and good at sports, you have to be gay). Spencer is an overachiever, the only real threat to Alison’s reign on the popular girls’ clique, and, of course, feels stifled under the pressure of an overbearing family demanding excellence. And then there’s Aria, the de facto anchor for the story. Though the show gives equal time to just about everyone, you can tell it has a favorite and Lucy Hale steps up to fill that role. She’s the sensible (if romantic) rock of the group, the kind of character that, if this were a medieval epic, would be handed the crown of just rulership by movie’s end. Although she’s not exactly perfect either.

One of the striking things about this show is how imperfect everyone is. Though the characters fit into stereotypes at the beginning, they get fleshed out in a hurry: Spencer acts out but never means to, Hanna has struggles with the fat girl inside (both in “eating her feelings” and the heart of gold she earned by not being conventionally pretty her whole life), Emily desperately tries to hold on to her stasis as she wrestles with her sexuality. And Aria — Aria has an affair with her teacher.

Seriously, is there some common link between CW and ABC Family Development/Current that decided we were bereft of affairs between teachers and the beautiful ethical violations sitting in their classrooms?

The characters’ imperfections fuel this show. The theme isn’t so much in what these characters do as it is in trying to cover up their indiscretions. Girls will be girls and the heavy-handed concept beaten into the heads of the audience in the first few episodes is that Rosewood (town in which they live) is small and gossipy. Make the wrong move and you could be nothing in Rosewood. They never really go into why Rosewood is that important but I assume it’s that whole “we care what our neighbors think” kind of thing. Kind of weak, really.

Happily, between the pilot and the winter hiatus, it becomes less about what Rosewood thinks as how teenage girls construct facades for their small high school universe to get by. What “A” threatens is the implosion of outward appearances either for revenge or as a learning tool. Though you never get the picture that these girls are in any way as bad as Alison was or that “A” is, the villain certainly has it out for them, possibly for retribution or maybe just to teach them a lesson about being honest with themselves.

What makes a good villain, especially the craziest ones, is the perversion of a virtue by taking it to an extreme and negating the gray area. Think of John Doe in Seven and his obsession with goodliness/holiness. In the flashbacks, Alison is often giving advice to for her friends to spill their secrets for the good of the people around them: Aria with her father’s infidelity, Spencer and her indiscretions with her sister’s suitors, Emily with her sexuality, and Hanna — Hanna’s kind of the oddball since Ali never really had any dirt on her (Hanna just wanted to be like Alison so much). The secrets in their lives become ammunition for “A” to torture the clique (reassembled as “A” starts to communicate with them all) as s/he threatens to expose the dirt only Alison had on each of them and the new secrets each girl keeps that, somehow, “A” knows. Presumably, “A” is either watching or has some kind of complicated information syndicate in place. “A” never asks for anything, never wants retribution from them. “A” just wants the truth to be out. Which, of course, would wreck all these girls’ lives (though probably not irreparably).

While the stories become complex with a lot of who knew what about whom and the girls doing things that people their age (or any age) probably shouldn’t do, I should make sure to tell you that this is definitely pointed at a certain demographic. You’ll watch this program and often think, “Why would that be a problem? Stupid kids.” While the storyworld is decently constructed so that you don’t fall into that trap too often, there are a few times when you might think their problem of the week is a non-issue but, even in those instances, a viewer can see why that would be a situation for a teenage girl. Their fragility is well-conveyed even if you have to think back to high school to really understand.

Complicating matters further is the actual murder investigation and the adult world that seems to dip in and out of their lives. For most of the series, the investigation is run by a crooked detective named Darren, with whom Hanna’s mother sleeps with in order spare her shoplifting child. Darren believes the girls know more about Alison’s murder than they let on (secrets constantly unfurl throughout the series but none suggest any of them actually had anything to do with Alison’s disappearance) and constantly plays “bad cop” whenever he can. Procedural fans would fly into fits over this guy’s protocol. He’s constantly looking in houses without a warrant, questioning minors without an adult present, digging through personal property for evidence with no precedent. He becomes almost cartoonish with his angle on the investigation, like David Caruso hassling 16-year olds, until the SAT bottle episode (“The Perfect Storm”) when Spencer’s lawyerin’ mother calls him out for his lack of proper protocol.

What clownish police presence introduces, however, is that the slant of the investigation (and part of the show’s stakes) is to set up one of the girls (or all of them) as at least accessory to the disappearance/murder, a rumor also contributed by several supporting characters on the show alleging “what they did.” So on top of trying to survive the threats of “A” wrecking their lives, the girls are also trying to figure out who “A” is since s/he must have the key to what happened to Alison.

The suspects are these:

  • Jenna: a girl that was not friends with the clique but was full of enmity for them (demonstrated by stink eyes in the flashbacks). She is blinded by an explosion for which Alison is responsible and a rumor floats to the clique that Alison visited Jenna in the hospital, blamed the explosion on Spencer, and spilled about all of their secrets. All signs point to her being “A” but too perfectly which, of course, makes her the probable red herring.
  • Toby: Jenna’s step-brother that seems to find the creepiest way to do everything. “Emily, I have to tell you a secret so let me close the door and look at you menacingly.” “Emily, I need your help so I’ll pop out of the backseat when you’re alone in the woods.” “Emily, do you like my Edward Cullen impression? Do you think I can pull it off or is my hair not tall enough?” He’s the Cripin Glover of this story. He also had a relationship with Jenna (ew) and suffered the consequences of Alison’s actions (Alison threatened to expose their relationship if he didn’t take the heat for the explosion). He’s suspect #1 for the police and is forever hiding out but, again, his involvement wraps up in too nice a bow so you have to figure he’s out, too.
  • Other suspects: There’s Jason, Alison’s older brother who seems to be just as conniving and manipulative as Alison (or as he describes, “worse”). Ian arrives in the present after being in a couple of flashbacks (he was the first suitor of Spencer’s sister that Spencer becomes involved with) only to have it be revealed in a video (that appears only in the last two episodes before the hiatus) that he and Alison were close. Mona hasn’t really been painted as a suspect yet (which makes her most likely) but I don’t like her. Hanna also gives Mona a lipstick near the beginning of the series which made me connect her with a message “A” writes on a mirror. Though the characters don’t make the same connection, I say I’m smarter than 16-year olds. Then — there’s Lucas, a nerdy guy that totally digs Hanna but hated Alison. I don’t want it to be him but they’re leading us to believe (at least in the bottle episode) that he is somehow involved.
  • Alison: because you never actually see her body. The girls universally agree that Alison is gone and that it’s someone else orchestrating an elaborate plan to keep the girls in fear and nudge them to destroy their own lives before “A” has the opportunity to do it. However, this show does have a bit of a soap opera feel and that means if there’s no body, there’s always the chance for return.

When I say there’s a soap opera feel, I also mean it has that early-00s-WB feel (as I mentioned earlier). Along with the murder investigation and suffering the threats of a mad(wo)man, the girls also struggle with pedestrian problems (by comparison). Spencer has neglectful parents that only show seem to show pride when she does exceptionally well at school. Aria’s parents get separated over the course of the first ten episodes. Hanna and her mother try to cope with money problems in the wake of the parents’ divorce. Emily has a father fighting in Afghanistan, an overbearing mother who feels she’s losing a grip on her daughter, and has a crush on a girl that used to be the Other Other Slayer on Buffy (clearly, Bianca Lawson has found the same Fountain of Youth Keiko Agena drinks from). Melodrama abounds but is almost never overwrought or condescending or terribly heavy-handed.

What’s interesting about this show (compared to its fellow network fare) is that it’s tightly-scripted and, even though there are bouts of indie/folk/singer-songwriter ballads underscoring a scene (some with such terribly specific lyrics that it sounds like someone might be writing these songs just for the show), it moves at a decent pace. How it differs is that it’s going somewhere. It’s not just about a bunch of families and how they cope with problems or how a bunch of gymnasts try to make it (or break it). There is a chase. The girls are constantly trying to uncover “A.” “A” is constantly one step ahead of the girls while finding ways to make their lives miserable. The melodramas tend to color the flawed characters (flawed from a personal perpective, not like the writers did something wrong) and fill out the storyworld rather than become the focus of the show. Because of that, Pretty Little Liars sometimes manages to be compelling, even to someone that sits near dead in the middle of the 18-49 Male demo. The show isn’t going to be spoken in the same breath as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, or whatever other award-showered programming you can think of in this Neo-Neo Golden Age of Television (a troubling term) although that writer’s room has a collective resume that’s not too be sneezed at (Oliver Goldstick, Joseph Dougherty, I. Marlene King). The show does, however, have better legs than you might’ve thought and has the quality to be a big hit for the network in the long run.

But, Matt, I’m still not watching Fringe.

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