Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists is a show that knows exactly what it is, which is… Pretty Little Liars. Just, you know, 2.0. It’s got murder. It’s got beautiful liars. It’s even got Alison (the superb Sasha Pieterse) and Mona (the equally superb Janel Parrish)—the OG-iest of the OG Liars—leading its otherwise fresh-faced cast.
This is an excellent state of affairs, as far as The Perfectionists is concerned—not only was Pretty Little Liars a monumentally popular series that helped define a whole generation of teen television, but with seven seasons of clever mystery-box storytelling under their belts, everyone on showrunner I. Marlene King’s creative team can turn out a classic PLL-style episode in their (nightmare-ridden) sleep. You want darkly pregnant narrative tension? King can give you darkly pregnant narrative tension. You want gorgeously framed, allusively rich images? Co-EP/director Norman Buckley and DP Larry Reibman can give you those damn beautiful shots. You want mysterious doll parts in jars? Oh, The Perfectionists will give you mysterious doll parts in jars.
The problem is, committing to being Pretty Little Liars 2.0—at least so far as this critic can tell on the basis of the single episode provided for review—means committing to all the bad that came with the good. And while I am on record as a person who adored Pretty Little Liars, I have no problem reminding people that it had plenty of bad. Like: Ezra “Predator/Dream Husband” Fitz. Like: Doubling down on the vilification of trans women. Like: Making a high school sweetheart, a hometown house, and babies at 23 the Greatest Happy Ending imaginable for five women who spent seven years fighting for their literal lives for the world to take them seriously. The truth of the matter is, PLL was, from the very start, a show that was never totally certain of what it wanted to be. Or rather, every time it felt like it was certain of what it wanted to be (i.e., an inverted Dead Girl Show serving up razorblade indictments of toxic misogyny), the show’s PR and social media team got into a kind of mutually reinforcing hype cycle with the younger, more heteronormatively OTP-obsessed half of the fan base and just obliterated every incisively sharp story and/or character element King and her team had spent years making. (And that’s not even getting into how the various mystery boxes introduced at regular intervals did or did not eventually deliver.)
For all that it is beautiful and spooky and full of all the machinating Mona I’ve been missing for years, The Perfectionists starts its freshman run with a similar (and similarly uncomfortable) tension between the steamy murder romp it thinks fans want it to be, and the incisive social commentary it knows it could be. I hardly even need to do any critical legwork to defend that analysis—King herself has already provided several receipts.
“When I created ‘Pretty Little Liars,’ it was like a summer beach read: It was about friendship and romance and murder,” she told Variety in a post-“Operation Varsity Blues” interview. “I admit that: It was just fun. We didn’t set out to change the world. But my attitude about this show is: We do want to change the world. We want to tackle topics like this idea of perfectionism. I hope it engages fans on a deeper level than just: Whodunit?” Meanwhile, in a “Murder Mystery” featurette released around the same time (but obviously filmed earlier), she explicitly contradicts that very point, promising future fans that her new show “is really fun, and funny at times, and sexy… but it’s a murder mystery at its core.”
The frustration, of course, is that swathes of smart, compassionate fans did engage with PLL on a deeper level than just “Whodunnit?” PLL did change the world (see: Emily’s arc normalizing, positive teen lesbian relationships), and it did have something to say (see: my Misandry Madness bracket, hyperlinked above), but somehow, despite critics sharper than the show ended up deserving shouting about it through a bullhorn every single week, the creators either forgot that over time, or never understood in the first place just how deep the stories they were telling went. To see the same cycle already playing out in the pilot of The Perfectionists is, well, frustrating: Each of the characters, who are likely spiky and complex and rich in dramatic possibility, are introduced primarily through the lens of how much/how often they have each gotten it on with the rich white jackass murdered at the end of the hour, and the barbed emotional arcs and layered character development Mona and Ali enjoyed over the course of PLL are scythed to the ground to squeeze them into a story that wasn’t built for them.
It has probably not escaped anyone’s notice that I have gotten most of the way through this review about The Perfectionists without actually saying much of anything substantive about The Perfectionists. If you’re familiar with the PLL universe, you probably already figured out that this is by design. One episode might suffice to give someone fluent in PLL a sense of how seriously this newest iteration will take its own pitch to cut through to the heart of perfectionism—one of the bigger socio-ethical Gordian knots facing today’s young people—but it’s nowhere near enough to try to make any claims about any of the arcane plot and character points that are likely to play into the murder mystery puzzle box at the series’ core. Approximately one million things happened in any given episode of Pretty Little Liars, and approximately one million of them ended up mattering to the big mystery’s final solution; there’s no reason to expect The Perfectionists will be any different. Which is to say, even if I wanted to go back to my Murder Cabin roots and break down what happens in the pilot and what it might all possibly mean, I couldn’t possibly do it in a single review.
What little about The Perfectionists I can tell you is this: In the service of the “steamy murder romp” half of the series’ identity, King has shifted the setting of Sara Shepard’s Perfectionists duology from Beacon Heights High to Beacon Heights University (the better to sext with), dropped two of the original “Perfectionists” in order to awkwardly accommodate Pretty Little Liars’ two greatest villains (the better to murder with), and swapped out one of the books’ remaining three girls in favor of a gay boy cellist (the better to… well, no, aside from making him too horny to avoid the easily avoidable hook-up the to-be-murdered dude honeytraps him into, this is an un-jibeable improvement). If you’re doing the math at home, that cuts the number of viable murder suspects down to three—Ava (Sofia Carson, the fashion one), Caitlin (Sydney Park, the one with two moms), and Dylan (Eli Brown, the one doing everyone’s homework)—although there is, in classic PLL fashion, an 11th-hour twist that introduces a possible fourth suspect to that short list. Aside from Ali, a single English class’ new TA, there appear to be few active BHU faculty members, which is convenient, plot-wise, for the outsized influence the dead boy’s mother wields across campus, and is definitely helpful in making all those moments Mona talks aggressively at the nearest mirror she can find way less awkward.
(Joking aside, the shift from high school to college would seem primed for the series’ “incisive social commentary” identity, too, but despite the fact that “college” is a key word in “college admissions scandal,” the fact of the matter is, it’s on the high school level where the American obsession with educational perfection is the darkest. So, at least at this point, it’s a change I find deflating rather than elevating.)
All this barely touches the surface of what happens in the pilot of The Perfectionists, but that’s the very reason I won’t: The Perfectionists echoes so much of the OG PLL, in both narrative beats and the shape of the jerk rich boy’s murder, that I don’t have to go on. Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists is doing exactly what the Pretty Little Liars part of the full title suggests it will, and it’s those same comfortable, artistically sharp, and spooky beats that will keep fans of the old tuning in for the new, regardless of what the critics think.That is to say, as the new stalker scrawls for Ali in bloody red under her campus housing wallpaper: THEY’RE WATCHING.
Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on Freeform.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibiliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG, or, if irreverently extensive breakdowns of everything PLL-adjacent is your kind of thing, sending weekly Murder Cabin-style recaps of The Perfectionists straight to your inbox.