If there is one thing you need to know about Pretty Little Liars, it’s that you don’t need to know anything about Pretty Little Liars to enjoy it. You just need to sit back, because even if you do know what’s going on, you won’t for very long.
Pretty Little Liars takes place in Rosewood, Pa., an upper-middle class suburban neighborhood where what seems to be a majority of the townsfolk have conspired to torment four high school girls. One year after the mysterious disappearance of their queen bee, Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse), her four best friends begin receiving mysterious notes from a blackmailer who goes by “A” that seems to know all of the secrets that they had only shared with Ali. A body is found, a funeral is had and simultaneously, they all receive a text:
“I’m still here, bitches. And I know everything. -A”
And then IT IS ON.
“A” is the most dedicated and omnipresent stalker ever depicted. As it turns out, “A” is a team (an A-team?) of stalkers. “A,” like all supervillains, has a lair from which they plan their evil-doing, harassment, and general torment that is entirely covered in newspaper clippings and pictures of the girls. When the lair was found, “A” moved it to an RV. “A’s” shenanigans range from:
Dangerous: One girl is trapped in a wood box on a conveyer belt headed straight for a buzz saw. Another episode featured a protagonist stuck in a coffin with a corpse that was then nearly pushed from a train. “A” hit a character with their car and then snuck into their hospital room to sign their cast. And a martial arts instructor found out the hard way that “A” had filled their punching bag with knives.
Intricate: One character opens a box of alphabet cereal to find that the only letter inside was A. “A” intercepted a Chinese food delivery and replaced every container with worms. “A” also interrupted a dental appointment to leave a threatening message rolled up IN SOMEONE’S TOOTH.
Bitchy: One character recovering from an eating disorder is forced to eat an excessive amount of cupcakes. “A’s” password is “Hefty,” a nickname from one of the character’s chubby days. During a tribute to Ali in the school fashion show, “A” altered the AV to pay “The Bitch is Back.”
There are so many amazing “A” moments, one after another in each episode, that these aren’t even substantial spoilers. Every time the girls figure out who “A” is, it turns out that they are working for someone higher up. The conspiracy against these 16-year-olds runs deep.
Pretty Little Liars is fantastic because it is unapologetically a soap opera, like an apolitical Scandal where everyone has amazing hair and has been in high school for five years with no talk of graduation.
It is balls-to-the-wall insane and doesn’t worry about connecting the dots later on. There are plot threads that are still dangling from the pilot and the fifth season just premiered. Supernatural elements were introduced for a couple of episodes to build anticipation for a spinoff series, Ravenswood (RIP), and were then immediately discarded. There is no family member or significant other free from the suspicion of being “A.” It is ridiculous and it is so much fun.
But more than fun, this show is important. Pretty Little Liars is one of the few shows on television that revolves around young women with agency (which is definitely ironic, for a show about blackmail).
The friendship between Spencer (Troian Bellisario), Hanna (Ashley Benson), Emily (Shay Mitchell) and Aria (Lucy Hale) is the heart and soul of the show. They are all fully fleshed out and dynamic characters that are supportive of and loyal to each other. Their love interests come third, after their friends and family (when they don’t suspect them of being murderers, of course). This is the last place where a viewer will see best friends torn apart over a man, an ever-common “pretty people doing ugly things” trope.
As an entry in the high school murder mystery genre, Pretty Little Liars owes a debt to Veronica Mars. Like Veronica before it, there is a mystery at the heart of the show that centers on the death of a popular blonde with a love of secrets who becomes more complicated as those puzzles are unraveled. The protagonists of the show are the ones “left behind,” needing to come to terms with who their friend really was, while solving the mystery of what happened to them.
This is where things are going to get controversial: Pretty Little Liars is better for women than Veronica Mars was. Spoilers ahead — but for a show that premiered 10 years ago. Two of the most important planes that can be used to evaluate depictions of young women are on their sexuality and their self-sufficiency.
Veronica had a complicated relationship with its heroine’s sexuality, beginning in the pilot. Veronica is drugged and raped at a party. Understandably skittish going forward, she has difficulty being intimate with future love interests. Rape is used as a plot device in all three seasons, with Veronica’s own in seasons one and two, an abuse scandal in season two, and a serial rapist at a college campus in season three.
The show also uses a recurring theme of linking hair to sex, with Veronica cutting her own in season one and the rapist in season three shaving his victim’s heads. For a show that was so well constructed in so many ways, it was unsettlingly content to rest on gendered violence. In season three, a sex tape is released of Veronica and her boyfriend — because even when the protagonist is in a happy relationship, there’s still no better way to menace her than with sex.
On Pretty Little Liars, the show takes a refreshingly non-judgmental stance on young women’s sexuality. Spencer, Hanna and Aria have all been in relationships without any turmoil or angst over “losing their virginity.” Emily came out as a lesbian in season one and, far from being a token or an edgy plot twist, all of her relationships have been handled in the same way as her friends’. While the showrunners like to play fast and loose with the age of consent in Rosewood (teachers, doctors, and police officers alike can’t seem to be able to resist), the girls on the show are depicted as fully in control.
The real triumph in the show is how often they are allowed to “save the day.” In Veronica Mars, for all the character’s strength and intelligence, each season ends with Veronica in danger and rescued by her father or a love interest. In Pretty Little Liars, the girls count on each other. The structure of the show has been set up so it is them against the world. But no matter how many obstacles are thrown in their path, they handle it themselves.
Pretty Little Liars is a silly show. It doesn’t take itself too seriously or ask its viewers to do so. They actively engage their fanbase, doing everything from having actors “take over” the show’s official Instagram to suggesting hashtags on the screen during the episode. In a sense, that’s what makes its depictions of characters and their relationships more powerful. It doesn’t pat itself on the back for drawing strong female characters. It just does so, then turns them loose to play.