PRETTY LITTLE LIARS
The first rule of life in Rosewood, Pennsylvania is Trust No Man. (Rules two and three being: never let unrelenting harassment in relation to the murder of your best friend stop you from accessorizing and always have something funeral chic on-hand.) Oh, the girls will get you too, but there’s a code, at least. There’s a conspiratorial poetry to female treachery that is separate from brutish betrayals of the male population. These guidelines in place, we’re prepared to dive into shiny suburban chaos. Hit and runs. Police corruption. Secret identities. Tech-savvy peeping toms. Blackmail. Adultery. Psychiatric incarceration. Plus, you know, murder. Lots of it. Murder and ominous text messages and four teenage girls with great hair and terrible luck. Welcome to the world of Pretty Little Liars.
Pretty Little Liars begins when the body of teen queen Alison DiLaurentis is discovered a year after she went missing, and the series centers on the craziness this event delivers unto her four best friends. In these friends, we find a fairly standard assortment of high school character stereotypes, but brought to colorful life by compelling performances. Meet Spencer (Troian Bellisario), tightly-wound overachiever carrying the wounds of a demanding household and her own perfectionism, and Hanna (Ashley Benson), the dweeb-turned-It-Girl whose blossoming was Alison’s special pet project. Hanna’s “type” is clearly the good-natured ditz, but the insecurities born of an outsider past often make her the show’s beating heart. Aria (Lucy Hale) is the gang’s resident alt-girl, and we can be certain that whatever spare time she can find is spent doing craft projects she found on Rookie. Beautiful jock Emily (Shay Mitchell) rounds out the foursome. Sensitive and quiet, I don’t mean to sound harsh when I say the most interesting thing about Em is the string of gorgeous girls she’s dated throughout the show; it’s just the truth. Together, they’re our pretty little liars, and they’re in a lot of trouble.
Ali was the enigmatic leader, a little blonde Machiavelli in a halter top who was feared as much as loved, or maybe a bit more. She brought the girls together, gilded them to her with an intricate web of secrets, and in her death has left them adrift to weather the consequences. Seventeen year old Sasha Pieterse, a real teenager amongst the usual cast of twenty-something actors playing teen, is a spooky and arresting force in her recurring appearances, and thus Alison remains somehow ever-present even in death. The show is a mystery first and foremost, or many mysteries, mystery inside mystery inside mystery, with a couple more underneath, and creates a level of true suspense many wouldn’t believe a teen drama capable of.
This being the case, I really don’t want to give much more away; the only result would be spoiling the fun. Anything with the word “teenage” in the description, particularly should that word be paired with the deeply feared “girl,” is loudly derided as frivolous, to which the only arguments I will bother to raise are: anyone who doesn’t think being a sixteen year old girl could be scary has never been one, or forgot, and, more importantly, what’s so bad about a little frivolity, anyway? You should be watching Pretty Little Liars if you like fun, tightly-plotted, exciting television. You should be watching Pretty Little Liars if you like seeing young female characters who are strong and dynamic, young female characters who are loyal to their friends and sometimes wear feather earrings. And you should especially be watching Pretty Little Liars if you want in on the most subversively feminist show on TV.
My first selling point for Pretty Little Liars is that it’s like if Twin Peaks and Gossip Girl had a very good-looking baby. If this alone doesn’t seal the deal for you, I fear we hail from very different worlds, and perhaps there is no imaginable middle ground for us. I’m not sure what else there could be to say. However, endeavoring bravely on, when I began recommending Pretty Little Liars to my friends, which I did almost immediately, and with great vigor, I repeatedly opened the conversation with, “there is this teen drama you have to watch because every single man in it is The Actual Worst Person and every girl is a troubled baby feminist angel! It’s great!” Even here with this opportunity to make a more artful appraisal, I stand by my original statement. If that point is all you take from away from this piece, it won’t be the worst thing in the world.
We have the requisite bad dads, of several different, contemptible shades, but with the added bonus of treacherous boyfriends (some of whom, looking at you, Aria’s beau Ezra, um, are English teachers in romantic relationships with their underage students,) suspicious brothers, and a wildly untrustworthy, maleficent police force. I mean, Emily’s babely military dad seems like the one decent dude (I melt against my will when he calls her “Emmy”), but he’s kept far out of town 99% of the time, possibly for that reason. Can’t have a rare exception sullying our message. The moms come off considerably better (Spencer’s Mariska Hargitay-look-alike mother in particular, as a powerful lawyer, has single-handedly kept the girls from wrongful imprisonment on more than one occasion) but good, solid parenting is as necessarily absent here as in any other teen soap. A girl just can’t get into sweeps-worthy trouble when she’s due home by ten.
Pretty Little Liars is not afraid to get dark. As much fun as I may have shrieking, for example, “SHE IS IN HIGH SCHOOL SHE IS IN HIGH SCHOOL SHE IS IN HIGH SCHOOL!” whenever Ezra and Aria are on screen, that relationship is cotton candy compared to the nastiness this plot holds. Questions of power and control for a young woman are central to Pretty Little Liars in a very real and serious way. On the one hand, you could take a cursory view and say, god, these girls get themselves into a lot of ridiculous trouble, don’t they, how silly, what a bad example, how unrealistic, but I think the narrative that creator I. Marlene King has spun is far more complex, more telling, more insightful about the perils of being a girl in this world. Yeah, maybe not every nubile pep club president out there gets stalked by an anonymous figure bent on vengeance, but you’d be hard pressed to find a young woman who does not know what it is to be treated as a puppet, a physical entity to be manipulated and tossed, or perhaps locked, away. The show finds ways to keep the tone light, by and large, but it would be a mistake to let that convince you that the story being told is anything but weighty. The fact is, these girls, their emotional well-being, and their female bodies, are in real and present danger throughout the series. They are each other’s only allies, and even that web of safety is made fragile by the pressures of outside forces. There is something truer to this show than many other teen-aimed stories I’ve consumed (and I’ve consumed a lot) and it’s the refusal to lose or hide amid the lip gloss and quotable dialogue the real and present danger young women face every day. Refusing to present a male hero to rescue our fair ingenues is certainly another. A reality the dominant society seems to forget is that depictions of violence against young women and Justin Bieber references are equally appropriate to the lives of teenage girls. Pretty Little Liars gets it.
In a prescient moment, Hanna says, “do you remember what Ali said about secrets keeping us close? She was wrong. They tear us apart.” and it’s hard to claim it isn’t true. It’s hard to argue that their fallen queen wasn’t mistaken in her faith in the power to be gained from the feverishly intricate privacies of girlhood. It is more obvious with each damning disclosure or nefarious blackmail plot that her secrets are their doom. But if it is true, that hasn’t stopped the girls from keeping them anyway. Like the show’s theme song says, two can keep a secret if one of them is dead.
Review by Tess McGeer.