Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new column, TV Rewind. As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
One thing I’ve really been noticing during these quarantimes (what I call “times of quarantine,” or “quarantine times”) are people’s choices when it comes to their television binge-watches. They’ve been a combination of rewatches and first-time watches of beloved shows, prestige shows, and, well, cursed shows. Which means I’ve seen a lot of recent rewatches and first-time watches of shows like The O.C. & Gossip Girl (Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage must be proud) and Felicity, Alias, & Lost (J.J. Abrams and Greg Grunberg must also be proud); I’ve seen them for shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, & The Leftovers; I’ve seen them shows like Glee.
Now, that last one especially sticks out, because at this point in time, deciding to rewatch Glee or watch Glee for the first time is essentially like signing a contract with the TV demons, one that requires you to update everyone you know (and even people you don’t) about your Glee progress, which in turn causes them to remember things about Glee they had long since buried in a shallow mind grave for good reason. Unlike those other binge-watches, a binge-watch of Glee is one that requires a dedication to specific type of televised madness. And when it’s over, where can you possibly go for your next binge-watch? Over to one of those beloved or prestige shows? A better Ryan Murphy property (Popular)? A worse one (Scream Queens)?
To me, with the return of Glee to the TV nerd consciousness in this way—to the point that Ryan Murphy is now threatening to do it all over again—the best route is for a follow-up of equal or greater madness, one that truly captured the spirit of ridiculousness and nonsense that a series such as Glee exuded, especially in the same era. Thankfully, with the launch of HBO Max, the perfect follow-up series (right down to lasting long past its expiration date in a lot of ways) is finally available to stream again: ABC Family’s (now known as Freeform) flagship teen drama series, the now 10-years-old Pretty Little Liars. (There’s even actor overlap between it and the aforementioned “other” Ryan Murphy properties.)
Based on the book series of the same name by Sara Shepard and lasting seven seasons and 160 episodes, Pretty Little Liars (developed by showrunner I. Marlene King) premiered on ABC Family in June of 2010, just a year after Glee. But thankfully, unlike a number of teen dramas in a post-Glee world, Pretty Little Liars never relied on its cast to be actors-slash-singers. (Except for that one time, which only cemented that specific character’s role as “the one who seems to be on a different show.”) Instead, Liars paved the way for the modern-day teen drama with a dark, mysterious genre (but not quite sci-fi/fantasy/supernatural) twist, a la Riverdale (again, minus the unnecessary singing), steeped in intentional anachronisms and heavily inspired by Old Hollywood (especially film noir and the films of Alfred Hitchcock).
Pretty Little Liars also took a page out of Twin Peaks and Veronica Mars books, as the series centered around the major question of, “What if the most privileged teenage girl you knew in a small town ended up murdered?” Only Pretty Little Liars rephrased the question into, “What if the most privileged teenage girl—who was also possibly the worst person you knew—in small town ended up murdered … and then an omniscient, omnipresent bully hacker plagued you and your friends over your complicity in her Queen Bee reign of terror prior to her murder?” Honestly, even Gossip Girl could never achieve such heights. And with that specific question, an increasingly-impressive and eerie amount of tricks up “A’s” (the omniscient, omnipresent bully hacker) sleeve, flashbacks revealing just how much of a nightmare the deceased Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse) was, and a quite winning foursome in the form of Lucy Hale (Aria Montgomery), Troian Bellisario (Spencer Hastings), Ashley Benson (Hanna Marin), and Shay Mitchell (Emily Fields), Pretty Little Liars had itself a stew going.
Of course, like many of its contemporaries (both dramas and comedies), Pretty Little Liars holds up in 2020 about as well a wet tissue. To be perfectly honest, it held up poorly as it aired, specifically in the case of its centerpiece “love” affair between the 16-year-old Aria and her 20-something-year-old English teacher, Ezra Fitz (Ian Harding). Or in the case of pretty much every one of these 16-year-old girl characters—excluding lesbian Emily and other LGBTQ+ supporting characters, at least—and their “love” affairs with 20-something-but-closer-to-30-year-old men. In fact, Pretty Little Liars was arguably the major tipping point for teacher-student (and adult-teen) relationships in teen dramas, to the point that Riverdale’s attempt at doing the story in its otherwise lauded first season was met with such a loud metaphorical thud it was truly impressive.
And even at the time, despite its somewhat logical reveal of its second “A” (the aforementioned omniscient, omnipresent bully hacker, who existed in multiple forms throughout the series), it fell in line with a number of hurtful and harmful gender/sexuality tropes that ultimately undermined the story told. However, thankfully, the existence of multiple “A” arcs throughout the series also means you can pick and choose when to tap out on the series if you so choose: The end of Season 2; the first half of Season 6; Season 7. (The final “A” arc involves a terrible British accent though, which is the greatest selling point for watching the second half of Season 6—which features a five-year time jump for the characters who had been in high school for six and a half years—through Season 7.)
Where Pretty Little Liars does hold up is in its depiction of the harshness and cruelty of bullying (cyber or otherwise) among teenage girls in high school—for even the smallest of “flaws”—especially under the umbrella of popularity and Queen Bee culture, simply amplified and warped by this funhouse mirror of a world. Unlike Glee, its anti-bullying message wasn’t so loud it became a punchline, but it showed how our heroes were complicit in their dead friend Alison’s (Sasha Pieterse) bullying and harassment, even when they themselves were arguably better people than her. With that came the character growth—for at least three of the four Liars—which truly holds up.
Plus, the show was just bonkers on every front imaginable, and it reveled in it. That was, of course, what made “A” such an intimidating force to be reckoned with. And what other show has a murder train episode with a wine-drunk mom babysitting a ghost girl and Adam Lambert appearing as himself—an important point to note—and hitting on the one main character who seemingly never knew what show she was in? In fact, while the Ezra/Aria stuff is only worse to endure in 2020, it’s also somehow funnier in a sense (even as early as the first season) to watch how “A” systematically ruins (both mentally and physically) various Liars’ lives—from outing a closeted Emily to her conservative parents to hitting Hanna with a car as a power play to framing Spencer for murder, while… excuse me, I have to check my notes real quick… telling Aria’s mother Ella (Holly Marie Combs) about the affair Aria’s father Byron (Chad Lowe) had a year before the series began, a secret Aria kept from her mother for said year.
While “A” continued to prey on the other Liars’ insecurities, disorders, and livelihoods, Aria was a character that somehow remained relatively unscathed by the torture. Her perfect-upper middle-class life simply becoming less perfect, because her parents got divorced and the world didn’t understand the love between her and her teacher. The series never quite knew what to do with the character once she was no longer the lead she was intended to be, despite Hale’s talent. (Hale was the biggest name of the four Liars actresses even back in 2010, and both the pilot and the opening title sequence make quite clear the series was originally was supposed to be Aria and The Other Three.)
The first 10 episodes of Pretty Little Liars (the first half of its 22-episode season) are bonkers, yet somewhat grounded in a recognizable reality. They’re also, unfortunately, filmed with a harsh yellow filter, that ends up making all of these pretty little actors look jaundiced. But it’s in them that you quickly get hooked to the Liars and their burgeoning return to friendship in the wake of their friend’s disappearance-turned-murder. Once it gets past those 10 episodes, it’s pretty much full steam ahead for binge purposes. Because knowing these four girls and having them all be best friends—bound by trauma and cyberbullying—is really what makes the rest of the show worth watching, despite and also because of all of its messiness. Once it’s in that right mindset, you can just enjoy the show for the chaos it is. You can enjoy it for Spencer being too intense about literally everything. You can enjoy it for Emily and Hanna somehow ending up with direst consequences at all times. You can also enjoy it for the sheer amusement that comes with the fact that Aria always seemed to be on another show entirely.
Seriously though: Even Lucy Hale herself figured that the only way this made any sense was that Aria was ultimately “A.” Of course, she was not. That alone is reason enough to revisit Pretty Little Liars.
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Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.
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