In my never-ending quest to find new (at least to me), interesting and fun TV material, I recently came to a conundrum: I wanted something light and frivolous, yet complex enough that it would keep me guessing. Nothing too heavy or horrific, but peppered with mystery and clues that begged to be deciphered. Something over-the-top and unrealistic, with beautiful people and quirky outfits and snappy dialogue that I could watch while, say, engaging in house chores, but substantial enough to not just use as background noise. A show counting plenty of past seasons to provide entertainment for a few weeks without becoming tedious.
I’m not sure exactly what I was looking for, but I definitely found just the thing in the most unlikely candidate: Pretty Little Liars.
I know, you’re shaking your head and going tsk tsk and judging me as you’re reading this. But hear me out.
This show is the most ridiculous, eye-roll inducing, riddled with plot holes TV program I have ever watched. Its plot is convoluted just for the sake of providing ample confusion, it’s cheesy enough to make you gag, the inconsistencies will make you want to scream and it’s so removed from reality that it makes the Gossip Girl cast look like boring teenagers. It’s on ABC FAMILY, for f*ck’s sake.
And yet I just can’t stop watching.
Still with me?
It’s a classic case of “it’s so bad it’s good“, and one of the things that make watching PLL such an enjoyable experience is the fact that, as much as I’m almost hate-watching it, I’m having too much fun to actually hate on it. Which means it’s entertaining. Ergo, not boring. Which is basically my only criterion coming into this thing in the first place.
There’s not much that’s not ridiculously outrageous about the show, including the main plot: Alison, a teenage girl disappears in the small suburban town of Rosewood, PA. When her body is discovered a year later, her four best friends try to solve the mystery, while a person calling themselves “A” is constantly making their lives a living hell and threatening to expose their secrets. The fact that most of these secrets are a direct result of “A” fucking with them (therefore the girls are basically enabling their tormentor) is yet another glaring plot hole, but just roll with it.
The whole mystery-solving angle is problematic in and of itself, because as the plot progresses we find out that Alison was pretty much the quintessential Mean Girl, which means everyone is this stupid town is obviously much better off without her in the first place.
The four Liars – Hanna, Spencer, Aria and Emily – are all imbeciles, even smarty-pants Spencer, who can randomly recite encyclopedia entries for just about anything the other three are clueless about, her repertoire ranging from history to ballistics and pretty much everything under the sun except, apparently, Portuguese.
This “A” person, on the other hand, is this omnipresent, omniscient entity that cruelly tortures the girls while they are unable to not only stop “A”, but even figure out how not to screw up the simplest tasks.
More frustratingly, these girls possess the memory of a goldfish; the only consistent piece of the storyline is that in each and every episode they repeat the exact same mistake that got them into trouble the previous week; from entering an ominous claustrophobic space without ensuring a way out to talking about their “closely” guarded secrets in the middle of a crowded room without even trying to keep it down, it’s not so much that “A” is an evil genius, but that the girls are just handing “A” all the ammunition (s)he needs in order to outsmart them on a silver platter.
Other frustrating inconsistencies include: random characters appearing to complicate things and then conveniently disappear for seasons at a time, introducing new plot points indicated as important only to be dropped in subsequent episodes, etc. The number of lies and secrets pile up so high that even the most attentive viewer couldn’t possibly keep track of everything that’s been going on more than 3 episodes deep.
It’s like the PG version of Gossip Girl with sub-par banter, minus the interesting character arcs, plus a murder mystery. Much like the big reveal about (spoiler alert!) Dan being GG probably prompted a lot of faithful viewers to watch the whole thing again and spot inconsistencies, I bet half the stuff that this “A” knows and does would be impossible to trace back to whoever is the designated “A” character and his/her accomplices each season. But who cares, really?
Meanwhile, despite the fact that we’re dealing with serious issues, not only is running to the authorities always the last resort (if it even crosses the Liars’ minds at all), but also there is such a minimal presence of authority figures – and when they do appear, it’s only as plot devices – that it’s obvious that the Liars’ school and homes only serve as set pieces, where no one does any real parenting and/or teaching unless it’s somehow useful to advance the plot. Nor is attendance apparently a requirement at Rosewood High. Chief among the useless adults, aside from most of the parents (with the possible exception of Emily’s, but they only appear in a handful of episodes to begin with), is Ezra Fitz, their english teacher-slash-Aria’s-on-and-off-boyfriend, who may or may not be a sociopath, but is definitely a pervy pedophile.
Normally everything I just mentioned would make me write this show off as utterly idiotic, but I can’t help but feel like it’s the most ridiculous and the most awesome teen show on television.
I’m working my way through season 4 at the moment, and so far my random thoughts on some of the (many, many, many) attributes and plot devices of this beautiful mess can only possibly be illustrated in the style of the patented point-reward method established in the sorely missed NYMag GG recaps.
[I’m trying not to give away too much here, not that spoilers really matter on PPL]
- The 4 liars have obviously never watched a scary movie in their entire life. Randy’s rules would have saved them a lot of suffering and points subtracted for stupidity:
– they keep precious pieces of evidence in the most obvious places – their lockers, their bags, their closets. -2 points, because of course they do.
– they always start out as a foursome and split up when they’re in the most danger. -4 points, because HELLO?
– they walk into the same traps while “A” is always at least 2 steps ahead of them. -2 points for lack of consistency, because we remember what happened to them in previous episodes better than they do.
– Every time they uncover a piece of evidence, instead of focusing on that, they get distracted by other, minor clues and run with those. – a whopping 15 points because GAAAH.
– Even after all they’ve been through, they still keep way too many secrets from each other for too long (which lands them in even more trouble). -2 points for wonky priorities.
- Rosewood must be the most densely wooded area in PA, going by how much running and hiding out in the woods happens in EACH AND EVERY GODDAMN EPISODE. Despite the fact that almost every disastrous thing that happens is always in a forest setting, these girls can’t seem to keep themselves from running there. -3 points, and another -2 for never even attempting to climb a tree, not even Sporty Liar or former “tomboy” (by her own admission, because nothing on the show suggests she used to be one) Aria.
- The teacher/student affair is nothing new, but these people act like having hot 20+ and 30+ men routinely hit on 16 year old girls is the most normal thing in the world. And of course the only adult who actually seems to have a huge problem with this is Aria’s dad, the original offender who asked his teenage daughter to keep his affair with his grad student a secret in the first place. -3 points
- While we’re at it, exactly how many pervy 20somethings can fit into one town? Just about every adult male in the show hooks up with a minor or has an otherwise inappropriate relationship – Ian, Garrett, Jason, Wren, Ezra, Holbrook are all good lucking guys, and they all have the hots for a bunch of 16 year old girls. – only 2 points, because what teenage show hasn’t featured an inappropriate relationship?
- Also, no one ever utters the words “statutory rape”. An extra -2 points for that one.
- It’s probably the first show in the history of teen shows that treats losing your virginity as a throaway mention and doesn’t make it a big deal. Not sure if I should award or subtract points for this one so, wash.
- Although under surveillance by a creepy homicidal asshole, none of them think to check their phones or homes for bugs. +4, because I need to stard awarding points for consistency in stupidity.
- After taking great pains to establish A’s supremacy in every aspect during the first couple of seasons, after the first big reveal they just explain it away almost as an afterthought, as part of her high-functioning sociopathic personality disorder in conjunction with a very high IQ that made her seem “omnipresent and omnicient”. -2 points for lazy writing.
- Bullied girl goes nuts and takes revenge cliche. +10 points, because who really expected originality?
- So far we’re seen a few lesbian couplings but no gay men. -5 points for gender bias.
- When the pool of possible “A” suspects/accomplices is dwindling, they just recycle plotlines from earlier seasons, because of course. Again, +3 points for being consistent in their inconsistencies.
- The more we learn about Alison, the more we’re supposed to feel like the bitch got what she deserved. +10 points, because this negates this entire premise of the show, therefore making us question everything in life until the conversation evolves into a philosophical conundrum that would leave us in a semi-catatonic state if not for the expectation that someday, somehow, this will all make sense. Please tell me it will all make sense.
- We need some kind of flow chart or at least a “murder wall” to follow what the hell’s been going on. +4 points because several characters (including the police, duh) actually have them, but -2 points for me because I’m *this* close to actually making one myself.
- It took these characters 3+ seasons of consistently discovering clues (only to have “A” snatch them from under their noses before they can invite the rest of the gang for show and tell) to figure out how to snap a photo on their cell for later inspection. -4 points because these girls live through their phones, they should know better.
- Ditto saving important clues on their laptops for safekeeping; four seasons in, and the most unlikely character had to point out that maybe they should be password-protecting their computers. +5 points for Hanna (I guess she did learn something from Caleb after all).
- Another 5 points for the Marin family because Ashley is the best. Seriously, how awesome is Laura Leighton? Man, I miss Melrose Place.
- They only watch black and white movies. I should award this points for consistency: if they’d actually watched something produced in this century, they might not keep repeating the same stupid mistakes featured in every horror flick, ever). BUT. We’re talking about teenagers in the 2010’s here. Only watching noir films. So much so that they even had a noir special episode, complete with period-appropriate costumes, hair and makeup and (even more) ridiculous dialogue. +10 points, because it was one of the most entertaining episodes to date.
- Another +5 points for the noir special because Toby’s flat delivery actually benefited the episode.
- What’s next, PLL the Musical? If so, I vote for a Fame-High School-type setting / “A”-owned Little Shop of Horrors mash-up. +6 points for the possibility of this in the future.
- Their college choices feature UPenn, Stanford, and not one, not two, but THREE fictional schools: Hollis, Danby and the very unfortunately named Cicero. -3 points, because really?
- Between Emily’s constantly bewildered/bug-eyed face, Aria’s empty stare and Toby’s super slow and wooden delivery, most days these people couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag. The only ones capable of a semi-decent range of emotions are Ashley, Hanna and Spencer – although even Troian Bellisario’s crazy eyes are getting a bit old. +4 points because they never claimed to be Emmy contenders, and + another 2 for accepting that fact and giving Spencer the only storylines that involve a variety of facial expressions other than confusion.
- Another +3 points for Aria’s awesome cry face.
- -3 points for the instagram-filter disaster of a spin-off that was the short-lived Ravenswood. The ridiculous factor far outweighed any potential creepiness. Another -4 points for depriving us of Caleb for so long.
- However, +2 points for Mrs. Grunwald’s exaggerated wrinkles and crazy eyes.
- +5 points for the creepy fortune teller kid at the doll store and another +2 points for all the creepy dolls in general.
- A generous +4 points for Toby’s evil phase. At least then it was easier to ignore his overwhelming lack of acting chops.
- 2 points for Ezra’s creepy face, which is not so much ominous but more like he just had a bad burrito.
- + all the points for Mona.
Wardrobe, hair & makeup
- Do teenage girls in the US really wear stiletto platforms to school every day? I mean I get why that wouldn’t seem so out there in a show like GG, but is it normal for highschool students to balance on 3-inch heels in suburban PA? No points, just throwing it out there.
- High heels are mandatory (and actually elevated into a plot point) unless you’re Sporty Liar, in which case you’re only allowed to wear mid-heel boots with mini skirts and Converse All Stars with jeans. +6 points
- +4 points for Spencer’s animal-themed tops and another +50 points for her general awesomeness
- -4 for Hanna’s food-themed tops. We’ve already established she had an eating disorder, must the wardrobe people rub salt in the wound too?
- +2 for making the extra effort to show off Emily’s spectacular legs.
- -3 points for practically making that cheap polyester red coat an actual character.
- -4 points for Aria’s awful taste in clothes (I’m looking at you, white & rainbow leopart print top WITH PEPLUM) and another -3 points for the chunky platforms and that godawful booties & knee socks combo.
- -3 points for Hanna’s metallic tights collection but +3 for all the other cute outfits. Wash.
- -5 points for dressing (already young-looking) Ezra in teenager attire. No matter how much they try to make him look close to the Liars’ age, he’s still in his 20’s and their teacher.
- -3 points for their obsession with the color red. Aside from Red Coat, we’ve had at least two characters (Caleb and Aria) sport a red leather jacket. No, just no.
- -2 points for showing off Toby’s skinny arms sleeveless tees, but +5 points for Jake’s tank tops and all the points for Jake’s shirtless appearances.
- -4 points for the accessory overload. Seriously, there IS such a thing as too much jewelry.
- I know everyone’s gushing over the girls’ hair (Emily’s especially, as well as Spencer’s), but have these girls never heard of a trim? Their ends are frayed to the nth degree, people! -2 points
- In major need of a trim: Toby’s mop. -2 points.
- Also in need of a trim: Aria’s absentee mother Ella. 40-year-old mothers should generally avoid waist-length hair, especially if they barely clear 5′. -3 points.
- With the exception of her bad-wig and roots-showing phase, Hanna’s hair at least looks like she’s had a haircut in this decade, and out of all 4 liars, Aria’s is definitely the most healthy looking. +3 points each.
- -2 points for Alison having access to a curling wand while she’s on the run.
- +12 points for their make up game. Even Hanna’s eyeliner is cute, although it’s close to approaching Taylor Momsen’s raccoon-eye status.
- + another 2 points for Spencer’s yellowish-grey skin tone in her psycho/withdrawal phase. Girl has game even with huge bags under her eyes.
- +5 points for their incredulous faces every time someone has the audacity to suggest they come clean to the cops/their parents/their teachers/any adult, really
- +10 points for every character being hot and in that vague 20-30something range but still playing teenagers, adults and/or parents. No unattractive people are allowed to take up residence in Rosewood, because teen show.
Final tally: if not for Spencer, PLL would barely land on the plus side. However, I did just award all the points to Mona and Jake’s torso, so ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.
Seriously though, it’s one of the most entertaining shows I’ve seen so far, and will definitely keep watching (i.e. expect new points awarded/subtracted as I plow through the remaining seasons).