Review – ABC Family TV Series – Pretty Little Liars
Title: Pretty Little Liars
Starring: Troian Bellisario, Ashley Benson, Holly Marie Combs, Lucy Hale, Shay Mitchell and Bianca Lawson
Reviewed by: S.I.
Pretty Little Liars hits every teen soap cliché and then some in its pilot episode. Based on Sara Shepard’s popular young adult novels, the new ABC Family series focuses on a clique of four high school girls grieving after their Queen Bee Alison (Sasha Pieterse) goes missing. A year after Alison’s disappearance the girls start to get messages from a mysterious ‘A’ who threatens to reveal deep dark secrets only Alison could have known. The concept initially began as a television show, but it first morphed into an ongoing eight-novel series. Eventually, like a lot of women’s fiction, the series finally made its way to the small screen. There’s a rule in the entertainment industry: boy books become movies, and girl books become TV shows (Twighlight being a notable exception). While it’s no Gossip Girl, the pilot does manage to show promise that it’ll be better than most ABC Family’s other teen fare.
The pilot sets up the mysteries of the season’s 10-episode arc. Wild child Aria Montgomery (Lucy hale), insecure Hanna Marin (Ashley Benson), bookworm Spencer Hastings (Troian Bellisario), athletic Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell), and their Queen Bee Alison DiLaurentis spend the night at a sleep over in the woods, but Alison soon goes missing. Jump ahead to a year later with Aria returning to Rosewood, Pennsylvania after an extended trip to Iceland with her family. Things have changed and the girls have drifted apart. Hanna has now taken Alison’s place as Queen Bee and Spencer and Emily are dealing with their own personal lives. Soon, each girl gets a taunting message that threatens to unveil their dark secrets to the world: Aria’s new relationship with her English teacher Ezra Fitz (Ian Harding), Hanna’s shoplifting, Spencer’s crush on yet another of her sister’s boyfriends, and Emily’s same-sex kiss with new neighbour Maya St. Germain (Bianca Lawson). When Alison’s dead body turns up the girls get a creepy “I’m still here, bitches” text message at her funeral.
The pilot’s weakness and the show itself really, is that there are too many characters and storylines to keep up with. Adding to the confusion is the fact that many of the young actresses look alike, looking more like the Plastics than the real teens. When all the actresses are together it’s easy to confuse them, especially considering most of them look old enough to have graduated from college. It doesn’t matter if the actresses playing them are different ethnic groups, each girl looks like a petite, made-up, designer-wearing, manufactured clone of all the other – even Emily’s female love interest. Teens usually try to blend in, but what’s ridiculous is that all the students at the local high school looks like models. Even the male love interests look alike. Yes, these characters are eye candy, but to the point of near distraction. In addition to their confusing (and slightly disturbing) similarities, each character not only has to grapple with a secret, but various love interests, and family secrets as well. It’s likely that this works better in book format, but it doesn’t entirely translate onscreen. Typically these teen clique dramas have many characters, but they have less immediate back story information. There’s even less to be said about the acting, which is all forced and stiff. But the action keeps things moving along at a fast enough pace for all this to be bearable.
Pretty Little Liars’ real strength isn’t with the characters, but with the secrets and mysteries of the plot. Each secret, despite only adding to the confusion, is jucier than the last. It’s incredible that ABC Family is able to pull off some of the adult material (like the teacher/student relationship), but it manages to do so while somehow remaining family-friendly. Some of the secrets are contrived, as they pass certain clique-lit signposts. But the scandals, however contrived, are adult enough to hold your attention. The show isn’t to be taken seriously – it has more potential to be guilty pleasure than a mainstream hit. Some of the plot points are so rehashed they’re laughable (the cheating parents, the teen bitch), but it’s scandalous enough to work. The male teacher and female student affair is shocking, but the girl-on-girl kissing is old hat by now. It has all the trashy sex of a teen Sex and the City, the teen bitchery of Mean Girls (though decidedly less wit) all wrapped up in some sort of cheap Lifetime knock-off. Pretty Little Liars is part salacious murder mystery, part embarrassment. It’s hard to tell if all this stuff is subtle parody. Even if it isn’t, the self-seriousness of the show might just lend itself to some pretty twisted brilliance. It can’t lose either way. If it’s a parody, the parents will get it. If it isn’t their teens won’t care.
The pilot shows that Pretty Little Liars could go in a couple of directions. It could end up being just teen fluff or trashy fun. It all depends on whether the 10-episode season is filled with too much juice. Either way, if the subsequent episodes are as bearable as the pilot, Pretty Little Liars will be good enough to sustain itself through the summer.
NB: On June 28, 2010, following the successful ratings for show, ABC Family ordered an additional 12 episodes for season one of Pretty Little Liars, bringing the initial 10 episodes total to 22.