There’s a lot of gossip but a dearth of good scholarship about Pretty Little Liars, or, familiarly, PLL. Why is this? It’s true, PLL is dumb. The show—the final ten episodes of which begin airing next week on April 18th—revolves around four or five girls, each a different shade of Disney princess, each from improbably wealthy families. The drama begins when queen bee Alison goes missing; a year after her funeral, her friends start receiving texts that threaten to expose them as liars, lesbians, precocious Lolita types and/or former fat kids. Occasionally they get group texts, like this one: “I’m still here bitches, and I know everything. -A”
Spoiler alert: this show gets so fucked up, I don’t know how it was ever on television, let alone ABC Family. A, the anonymous author of these texts, will eventually break into their Chinese takeaway, fill it with dirt and worms, then text: “This is what live bait looks like.” In a separate episode, A will extract the fortunes from their fortune cookies and replace it with a note of their own: “Liars and tigers and bitches, oh my!” A will sneak into their cafeteria and tamper with their Alphabits, replacing all 25 other letters with A. (This episode is called “Touched by an A-ngel.”) A will sabotage a memorial fashion show with heavy metal guitar and flame graphics, screaming over the PA: “THE BITCH IS DEAD!” In their final coup, A will build a dollhouse in the middle of nowhere, with fascimile replicas of the girls’ rooms, then submit them to psychological battery. One will wake up covered in blood; another will get her hair cut short. A is that unpredictable.
Who is A? It doesn’t matter. Like Twin Peaks, Pretty Little Liars is most enjoyable when it meanders, when the lead character gets lost in the woods or stuck in a strangers’ cabin. The comparisons end there. Twin Peaks was sexy and cool; Pretty Little Liars is not. It’s a flaming circus tent of tween vulgarity, a Sweet Sixteen cake that’s pink, black, and mostly fondant. Adam Lambert makes a cameo as himself. Every week is either Halloween or homecoming, and every dance is a masquerade ball. Actually, every day is a masquerade: no one needs an occasion to wear fascinators in earnest or corsets as outerwear. If you find the Dresden Dolls cringe worthy, you’ll find Pretty Little Liars disgusting. Trust me, I do.
I watched about two million episodes of this show, studying its politics, its motivations, and its ethics. Guess what: it doesn’t have any. Rosewood is an extremely wealthy town, majority white, with a few racially ambiguous hotties, a lesbian bar and an international airport. The weather always calls for layers and belted dresses. The girls aren’t feminists but they do solve crimes. They deal with gaslighting, manipulation, and slut-shaming, but that doesn’t stop them from waking up, curling every inch of their hair and choosing a new, nutso outfit. The identity of A, once revealed, will shock viewers like me into searching for its implications, of which there are none. PLL is oblivious to conversations about identity, feminism, or intersectionality. There are no special episodes, no stereotypes except one: every single person might be a supervillian cyber stalker.
Pretty Little Liars has nothing to say about anything. It’s dumb, yes, but how dumb? Charles Baxter came to class during my time in graduate school and rhapsodized about Breaking Bad, comparing it to the Godfather. “Americans like to see men pass a threshold, after which there is no going back.” Fair enough. Maybe I like to watch teen girls drive cars off a cliff. If Pretty Little Liars is so dumb, why did I watch so much of it? The gold standard of this new golden era of television, it seems, is how far men can transgress, how long before they break out of their domestic routine to announce “I am the one who knocks.” The central premise of these shows is that people are corruptible, families are changing, and everyone has a price. If the greatness of a show is measured by how far it will go, may I nominate Pretty Little Liars for consideration? At one point, A breaks into the Magic 8 Ball biz, delivering four of them, custom made: “Kisses, A.” Pretty Little Liars realized the narrative potential of cyberstalking years before Black Mirror did the same. It predicted doxing before smartphones were even a thing. Pretty Little Liars is not just tons of fun; it’s prescient, if goofy.
This theory of threshold-crossing relies on a few other things Charles Baxter did not mention, including plausibility, middle class ordinariness, and male fantasy. No matter how stupid a show might be, it will be taken seriously if a man can wonder what he would do better. Pretty Little Liars has no point of entry for male viewers. In my experience, it scares men away. The soft focus of early episodes quickly yields to something more critical: how girls see girls. What is Aria wearing? What the hell is Hana thinking? What will Spencer to do to maintain her GPA? And how many yellow tank tops were hurt in the making of this show?*
Pretty Little Liars spoils its female fans. For men, it offers little incentive. Few guys would project themselves into the needy boyfriends that nag the main characters, nor the sociopathic losers that stalk them (one often turns out to be the other.) Fans of hard boiled detective stories will be disappointed by the show’s pizzazz. According to the New York Times, the viewership of Pretty Little Liars is 94% female. As far as I can tell, the show’s producers couldn’t care less. The Lana Del Ray song in the background lets me know that Pretty Little Liars cares first and foremost about me and my friends. I struggle to see what’s so great about TV right now, but I’ve let go of my qualms with PLL. It’s fun. It’s fucked up. And, poor me, it’s almost over.
*Credit to the Forever Young Adult forums for this joke.
Flannery Cashill is a writer and artist. More of her work can be found at flanland.com.