Many are lamenting the lack of serialised television on modern telly, with so many stand-alone reality bore fests filling the schedules, but there’s a series that’s already combining smart, serialised writing with massive audience figures: Pretty Little Liars. You might not have heard of it; you might have dismissed it a long time ago, but I’m here to encourage you to give it another chance.
The story of four former mean girls who, after the leader of the group is killed mysteriously, are tormented by an unseen group calling themselves ‘A’ – Pretty Little Liars is addictive television that has so far woven together a mystery that seems to have no end. While never really making an impact in the UK (the first two seasons have aired on VIVA), it’s incredibly popular in the US and probably has more geek fans than you’d think.
Here are few reasons why the rest of us shouldn’t be so quick to turn our noses up:
It’s fun to get addicted
Missing Lost, or the season-long crime-solving missions of Veronica Mars? Well then I have some good news for you. While I wouldn’t compare the weekly adventures here to anything that happened to the passengers of Oceanic 815 or other high-concept genre shows, it is incredibly pleasing to find a serialised drama of this kind not apologising for its complex mysteries or active dismissal of casual viewers. No episode is a standalone adventure, and it demands that fans watch every week.
Personally, I haven’t found myself trawling forums and wikis for clues since that ruddy plane crashed on the island, and I never thought it would be a silly teen drama that got me back there at two in the morning. I don’t know when it happened, either. I found the first season pretty naff, so much so that I thought about binning it all together, but now I wouldn’t even consider erasing it from my weekly watch list. There’s something about long-form mystery that sucks you in, and I won’t rest until I know the answers to all of these questions.
The many horror/noir elements
It’s always nice to watch a series made by fans of film and television, and while Pretty Little Liars won’t ever redefine the horror genre like The Walking Dead or other respected cable shows emerging over the last few years, there’s a nostalgic quality to the way it uses horror tropes and homage. Even more prominent are the overt literary references, with characters named after famous authors and characters, and famous quotes used both in passing and as taunts from ‘A’ to the girls.
Each finale has been a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, too, with the plots, tropes and iconic scenes from Vertigo, Psycho etc. used liberally to tell their own stories. There’s a chance that younger viewers won’t understand the references as readily as their older siblings or parents, and this just proves that Pretty Little Liars is covering all of its bases. It also adds colour and depth to a series that would otherwise seem a little self-indulgent or shallow, and is a weekly treat for film and book boffins.
They have the answers vs. questions ratio down
What’s our biggest complaint over mystery shows? There aren’t enough answers, and the ratio of unanswered questions to big reveals become unbalanced and irritating around the second season. There have been a few wobbles, but Pretty Little Liars has largely sidestepped this problem where it counts. With so many shows with nowhere to go after their initial mystery is solved, it’s impressive how much Pretty Little Liars has grown and evolved.
Immediately before fans start to get frustrated over an unrevealed bit of information, the show plans a big reveal episode and, ever since the identity of ‘A’ was finally let out of the bag in the season two finale, there’s been no stopping them. Around half of the questions posed at the beginning of the show have been answered now, and big slices of juicy clues and information are offered up on a weekly basis.
There’s some real darkness to it
With all of the soap opera plotlines going on, not to mention the fact that we’re meant to like these girls, it’s always surprising when something genuinely grim comes along to shock us out of our happy stupor. The characters on this show are not nice people – before we meet them in the pilot, they’ve accidently blinded someone and covered it up. We’re meant to be surprised when said person is implicated in ‘A’ plot but, really, they deserve everything they get.
There’s also the sense that what we see in flashbacks and hear in whispered bathroom conversations isn’t the whole story but a product of group selective memory, and we know deep down that the people torturing these girls have, or once had, a valid point to prove. Add that to the murder, sexual assault and other nasty things going on in and around Rosewood, and you’ve got a dark, gritty noir stuck inside a light-hearted tween drama on a family network.
It’s the future of television
Like it or not, watching television is no longer an solely individual experience. You can ignore the internet if you want, but everyone knows that there’s a whole universe of chat and theorising just waiting to be explored. Pretty Little Liars has used and abused this new world in as many ways as possible, and has become the most social show across all of TV on Tuesday nights. It was also the most tweeted cable TV show of 2012, and has used the resources of social media in various other intriguing endeavours.
Many of you will never have watched a show on ABC Family, but those who have will already know about their new on-screen hashtags. They run in the corner of the screen saying things like #poorspencer and #tobyisdead, directly encouraging viewers to talk about the plot while it’s still unfolding. Less irritating are the suspect trackers they launch a couple of weeks before each big reveal, which outlines a particular ‘betrayal’ or death and has fans vote on who the most likely subject is.
It probably won’t get cancelled
Not only is there almost no chance of the show being cancelled before we get the answers, but ABC Family’s attempts at seizing their opportunity for ratings and fame mean that the series airs almost year-round. Seriously, it’s never gone for more than a couple of months, and even then we’re offered clips, extras, web series and endless cryptic clues from executive producer Marlene King to keep us going. The season three finale aired last month, but we only have to wait until June for its return.
This removes so much peril from the viewing experience, as people have become increasingly resistant to trying new things just in case their loyalty is punished with a swift cancellation. Instead, we can assume that Pretty Little Liars will be able to tell its story for as long a time as it chooses, and this means that fans aren’t constantly checking the ratings after every air date. We might even get a movie at the end of it, no Kickstarter campaign required.
It’s the guilty pleasure you still can’t admit to
One day, after ploughing through three seasons of Pretty Little Liars, you might find yourself discussing the show’s various mysteries with the same passion that you usually reserve for things like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. That’s what this show does – it makes fourteen-year-old girls out of the best of us. In an age where guilty pleasures don’t really exist anymore, and our viewing habits and taste are so varied, there’s something to be said for having a box-set that you really can’t admit to owning.
The intended audience is obviously young and female, but you’d be surprised by how wide an age-range it really covers. Like with most teen dramas with some kind of twist to them, including critically lauded ones like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, older audiences find themselves watching ironically before genuinely enjoying a series not intended for them. This is camp, fluffy trash at times and unsettlingly dark telly at others, and this is always going to attract a wide and disparate audience.
So, while the series has broken up for a couple of months, now’s your chance to catch up on the first three seasons. It’s a gem that’s been hidden away on strange channels in the UK and teenagers’ twitter accounts worldwide, but now could be the perfect time for the geek audience to discover their newest guilty pleasure. Who is ‘A’? Who killed Allison? These questions might not mean anything to you now, but I guarantee you’ll be gasping to know before long.
Season four of Pretty Little Liars starts on the 11th of June on ABC Family in the US, and the show has already been renewed for season five.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.