Kathleen Recommends…Great Moments in Television

“Pretty Little Liars”

When you watch a lot of television shows made for preteens with personality disorders, you stumble upon some great moments that, frankly, you wouldn’t find anywhere else. On ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars,” a texting-happy blackmailer will stop at nothing to torment the four main characters…not even the bounds of good taste. In one deliciously demented scene, the mysterious “A,” having just stolen from Hanna the money that Hanna’s mother unlawfully “borrowed” from an elderly client, offers to let the pretty little liar earn the cash back in an unorthodox way. “A” sends Hanna, only recently free from her hellish days as a chubby girl called “Hefty Hanna,” to a local bakery to pick up a box of smiling piggy cupcakes. If Hanna eats them all, she will get her money back. Desperate to recover the lost money, Hanna complies, giving viewers many gratuitous shots of a pretty blonde girl crying into her cupcake. It’s weird, voyeuristic, and yet terribly inspired. Each bite is a triumph of trash TV.

While its artistic merit may be in question, one thing’s for sure: you don’t see that on “The Good Wife.”

In Defense of a Guilty Pleasure: Pretty Little Liars

I have a tendency to watch a lot of television, which means that I am almost as frequently thinking of ways to defend this habit to my skeptical friends and acquaintances. I won’t get started on how pretentious, even downright pathetic I find the line, “I don’t watch television” (always delivered so smugly), but I will admit that whenever I encounter a nonbeliever, I do tend to evaluate my own choices, hoping to find that they hold up. For the most part, I think I have fairly “sophisticated” taste in TV, if that really matters. I watch shows that are well-reviewed, held up as the paragons of modern television programs…that sort of thing. In short, I watched “Lost,” okay? Every once in a while, though, mostly when the show is airing on ABC Family, and on a night when I don’t have a lot going on, I’ll get hooked on something that isn’t very subtle, isn’t very clever, and is probably marketed toward 12-year-old girls. It used to be that this sole transgression was called “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” and it was so hilariously terrible that even the most hardened hipster could still enjoy it ironically. Or post-ironically. Or whatever they do now. But, unfortunately, that black smudge upon my street cred has blossomed into a full-fledged stain, and I am now marked by my membership to “a new kind of family.” I am an ABC Family acolyte. And I watch “Pretty Little Liars.”

“Pretty Little Liars” is kind of like “Veronica Mars” if Veronica spent all her time backstabbing, hooking up with teachers, and being too crappy a detective to trace the dozens upon dozens of “restricted” text messages and emails that have bombarded her every technological device for…like a full year. So, yeah, I guess they’re not all that similar. Their main similarity lies in their central mystery: a slutty blonde manipulator is murdered, and even though her friends didn’t really like her, they still want to find out who killed her. In this case, the slutty blonde is Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse), a queen bee who disappears during a  sleepover with her four best friends. Her body is discovered one year later, which, understandably places each of these “pretty little liars” under suspicion. These girls, who parted ways after Alison’s death, are brought back together by this discovery, as well as their shared torment of being the recipients of mysterious text messages. Someone called “A” seems to know not only the secrets of Alison’s death, but also the personal secrets that each girl harbors. Under the threat of being outed, they comply with A’s every whim, even when such compliance means hurting themselves and others.

Although, over the course of this first season, many of the secrets have already come to light, the girls are no less menaced by A now. Living Bratz doll Aria (Lucy Hale) continues to narrowly dodge the revelation that she is dating her English teacher, the absurdly-named Ezra Fitz (which she pronounces as if it is the sexiest thing ever). No help in this is her friend Hanna (Ashley Benson), who, in order to earn back the money A has stolen from her (and which her mom, in turn, stole from an elderly client of hers), actively tries to sabotage Aria’s special date night with Ezra by offering Aria’s clueless mother a ticket to the museum gala they are attending. Emily (Shay Mitchell), meanwhile, is living with the aftermath of A’s (literal) outing: she must accept that her parents disapprove of her being a lesbian, and deal with the subsequent heartbreak when her mother connives to have her girlfriend, Maya, sent away to rehab. Finally, perfectionist Spencer (Troian Bellisario) tiptoes around her sister, Melissa, holding onto the knowledge that she had flings with not one but two of her boyfriends…and that she now believes Melissa’s husband Ian may have had something to do with Alison’s death. Although A mostly taunts the girls, it appears that at times “A” is for ally. Indeed A sends them video evidence that Ian was with Alison the night she died. Of course, A is also, presumably, the one who hit Hanna with a car when it appeared she had gotten too close to the truth….

So why do I tune in week after week? For one thing, I can’t resist a mystery. Who’s A? Who killed Alison? Why does Aria dress like a 45-year-old hooker? The mysteries themselves don’t necessarily have to be important…they just have to feel imperative in the context. Can I go on not knowing the resolution? No, I’m hooked; I have to know what comes next. Of course, even the over-the-top opening credits, of a corpse getting vamped up, and then shut inside a coffin, are enough to draw me in. The premise itself is too deliciously contrived to pass up; its gothic “Gossip Girl” conceit is different enough to keep me hooked, but familiar enough to let me revel in the tropes. Sure the revelations from week to week aren’t that impressive, but the atmosphere is enough to keep me sucked in. This may be “bad” TV, but the show is smart enough to know what it is.

It may not live up to its forebears, but it still appears to have a certain reverence for them. After some failed attempts at sleuthing, one of the girls jokingly invokes the name “Veronica Mars,” at once highlighting the differences between the two shows, and obliquely pointing out the shared dead high school girl premise. Similarly, one of the detectives working on Alison’s case is a woman named Agent Cooper. The difference between this Agent Cooper, who is black and female, and the white, male Agent Cooper from “Twin Peaks” is clear…yet the shared name seems to suggest again a connective thread between the two shows. Pretty blonde Alison, a double for the murdered Lilly Kane, is also another version of Laura Palmer. The show recognizes our sick fascination with the murders of pretty, popular teenagers, and indulges it. It is a guilty pleasure, most certainly, but it is one that understands such guilt, and feeds into it, while it provides its campy gratification.

Obviously, the show has it shortcomings, and it is a bit generous to imply that all of its failures are calculated, successes in disguise. The acting is decent at best, and, perhaps by virtue of its being on ABC Family, the show is never as daring as it might be. It never commits to making its protagonists as unlikable as they probably would be in real life. Instead, we are left wondering how they could ever have been friends with a true “mean girl” like Alison. Still, it handles some issues nicely, even in an unexpectedly subtle way. For example, although, Emily’s sexuality sometimes feels a bit like a forced, of-the-moment issue, the writers do a nice job of showing her burgeoning confidence in her identity, even in the face of adversity. What could have been a story arc introduced simply to give Emily’s life some additional conflict, instead has become a nice fleshing out of Emily’s character, and of the girls’ friendship. Their effortless support of her presents the fact that she is a lesbian as a refreshing non-issue. This sharply contrasts with the reaction of her ultra-conservative parents, her mother in particular, who are devastated by the news. Indeed one of my major gripes with the show, although it is nothing new to teen shows or movies, is that the parents are always either clueless or unreasonable (or absent). Um, if I lived in a town where young girls were getting murdered, I think I’d stop worrying that my daughter was a lesbian….

Ultimately, though, “Pretty Little Liars” is exactly the fun diversion it appears to be. It’s got murder, forbidden romance, and popular girls with cool names like “Spencer” and “Aria” (seriously, who has these names?). Although it’s not making a “Best Of” list anytime soon, and although you can’t let it slip that you watch it when you’re on a first date (at least not if you’re looking for a second one), you can still huddle in your living room, with the lights out, the doors locked, and maybe a mask on, and enjoy the show for what it is. It’s a guilty pleasure, yes. But it’s my guilty pleasure, dammit. And it could be yours, too.

%d bloggers like this: