I don’t really know why I started watching this show. I was feeling at a loss as to what to do with my leisure time in the evenings, now that I’m not writing Doctor Who reviews every night, and turned faithfully to Netflix to look for a new show to watch. I scrolled hopefully through the shows and films I had added to “My List”, looking for something palatable to tie me over in the week between new Doctor Who episodes. I considered briefly starting Lost or Supernatural, both cult shows I’ve been meaning to get round to watching, but I didn’t think I was ready for that kind of commitment yet. I’m still trying to work through my love/hate relationship with Game of Thrones, after all. There were a few shows I’ve started but have put aside with the vague idea of getting back to them one day, like Arrow, which I stopped watching a quarter of the way through the second episode because I found I had begun thinking about all the other more rewarding ways I could be spending that time.
Then the icon for Pretty Little Liars caught my attention. I vaguely remembered adding it because the description piqued my interest. I also have a bit of a soft spot for teeny dramas, particularly ones with strong characters. Along with the kind of mystery that animates other thriller shows I’ve liked, like Orphan Black, it seemed like something I’d enjoy. So I swallowed my pride and began watching Pretty Little Liars. At the point of writing this, I’ve finished the first series and am a couple of episodes into the second series. And I’m actually surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed watching this show so far. I’ve made it through almost 30 episodes of Pretty Little Liars in a little over two weeks, where I spurned more “mature” dramas like Arrow and Marco Polo after two and one episodes respectively, and where it usually took me a couple of weeks to get through one series (13 episodes) of shows like Merlin and Torchwood. Apart from being eminently binge-able in general, it’s just surprisingly well-written—surprisingly engaging and intelligent for a show directed at, essentially, adolescent girls (mostly).
Introductions, though. Basically, this is a show about four high school girls who, a year on from the disappearance of their friend, Alison, begin getting sinister messages purportedly from Alison, terrorising them with their secrets, some of them very dark secrets. The plot thickens when Alison is found dead—but the messages keep coming. That’s essentially the overarching plot of the series, and the narrative involves the group’s interactions with their shadowy tormentor, known only as “A”, and their attempts to find an unmask “A”. “A” seems to be always watching them, and seemingly knows everything about them. (S)he blackmails the group, collectively and individually, mocks them cruelly with their most sensitive secrets, and generally makes for a menacing, threatening presence, seemingly invincible, armed with virtual omniscience and omnipresence and a frustrating ability to remain hidden in plain sight. The girls’ efforts at discovering “A” are always fruitless because their sinister harrier is always far ahead of them in the game. Added to this the compelling mystery that still surrounds the circumstances of Alison’s death, the identity of her murderer unknown, and Pretty Little Liars makes for a genuinely gripping mystery-thriller.
The “A” mystery is what keeps the audience coming back every week, but the show’s real strength is in its quality character drama. It features four very strong characters as its leads. There’s Aria, the artsy, down-to-earth one who keeps together her fragile family; there’s Hanna, the glamorous “it-girl” whose preoccupation with clothes and boys belies profound compassion and strength of character; there’s Emily, the shy, sweet, pensive one who’s also a star athlete; and there’s Spencer, my favourite, the clever, determined, strong-willed one. Each are played by girls in their early 20s—all wonderful actresses, but the disparity is patent at times; for example, the actresses’ performances were far too mature for the 16 year-old characters they were playing for much of the original season, although their teenage girl portrayals gradually became more convincing over the season. The physical age disparity was also quite apparent to me at first, especially when I saw the 24 year-old Troian Bellisario dressed up as a 15 year-old Spencer Hastings in the first scene of the first episode. But I notice the age difference less now, although maybe I’ve just got used to it.
Each of the characters have their own personal issues to face, and the drama surrounding the the private lives of the four leads makes as much compelling viewing as the very intriguing mystery surrounding “A” (which actually develops fairly slowly). Again, this isn’t your standard-issue teenage soap opera; I’ve found that the drama is particularly mature and intelligent for its demographic base—it doesn’t patronise its audience by any means. Whether it’s Aria’s family breakdown, Emily’s issues surrounding her homosexuality, or simply Hanna’s relationships problems, it approaches its subject matter sensitively and maturely. More than anything, the show is prepared to discuss and explore consequences, something conspicuously absent, or given only superficial treatment, in many other dramas of this age-demographic. Indeed, the consequences of actions, on both “perpetrators” and “victims”, is at the heart of this very multi-layered and thematic show. All this without becoming overly dark or gritty and losing the charm of a teen drama.