First Thoughts on “Pretty Little Liars” (End Season 1)

So, I started watching “Pretty Little Liars” last week. As noted on Friday, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the series, and so was a little concerned that I’d watch it and it would be terrible. In hindsight, the worst it could possibly have been was a soap opera-type show like “Dallas” or “Dynasty”, both of which I liked enough to rewatch. Or it might be a flawed conspiracy show like “Twin Peaks”, which I enjoyed. Then again, shows that I thought that I would have liked before watching them again like “Remington Steele” and “Beauty and the Beast” worked out very badly for me, and did so quite quickly. So I wasn’t sure if I had simply wasted my money on it and was leaving myself open for several months of torment or if it was going to be something that I actually enjoyed.

From the first season, at least, I’m actually quite enjoying it.

One of the best things the show did was while it does contain and outline some standard teen/high school soap opera points — student and teacher falling in love, student’s parents break up, student explores her sexuality and comes out as gay — from the very start in the pilot they make it clear that those plots are only side plots and that the real plot is going to be about the anonymous character A and their attempts to manipulate the main characters and reveal and potentially make them pay for their secrets and their sins. The subplots, then, are there to allow us to take a break from the main conspiracy plot and, more importantly, to generate secrets and lies for A to exploit. This makes the show more than a simple teen/high school soap opera right from the start, and so avoids the issues that a show like “John Woo’s Once a Thief” had, where the pilot presents one type of show and attracts a certain type of audience and then later shifts to another type of show, losing the audience that would have liked the latter from the pilot and then losing the rest of the audience with the tone shift. Here, you know from the start that this is a conspiracy show first and foremost, and the rest of the season carries on with that so we know from the start what sort of show this is going to be, meaning that if you’re in the audience that would like it you know that you will like this show.

The second thing the show did well was make the main characters flawed and yet sympathetic. This is important because if the characters weren’t flawed we would have a hard time believing that they would have done the things that they needed to do to get A’s attention and keep those nasty secrets, and also would have a hard time believing that they would do some of the things that A asks them to or, more importantly, the things they do to try to ferret out who A is and stop them. Even the two “nice girls” — Emily and Aria — have their flaws, with Emily being too much of a doormat and Aria being too spontaneously emotional. The two of them that are less nice — Hanna and Spencer — are indeed willing to do bad things if they feel they need to.

Which leads to the second point: while they have to be flawed, they also have to be sympathetic, because we want to believe that they would do bad things and believe that they should be punished for what they did, but we also want to be on their side and so have to be willing to believe that they don’t deserve what A is putting them through. And while Aria and Emily get that mostly by being nice themselves in most cases, Hanna and Spencer have personalities that work against them being sympathetic. Hanna starts as a prime Alpha Bitch — replacing their former leader, the disappeared Allison — and Spencer is established as being exceedingly competitive and a little cold. The show actually makes a brilliant move by having Aria and Emily get together when Aria first returns as those are the two nicest characters and then bringing the other two in to have everyone get back together again, as the rekindling of that friendship lets them show Hanna and Spencer in a different light and start the process of making them sympathetic characters.

The show then follows on from that by in the first season by making Spencer and especially Hanna the butt of most of the things A does to them and the bad things that happen in that season.

Hanna goes through the most, making the first season, at least, an extended “Break the Haughty” for her. First, she gets caught for shoplifting — which was indeed something she did in general for fun and so deserved to get caught for — but then in order to keep her from getting charged her mother essentially sleeps with the detective, which leads to a long term assignation as the detective drags it out, and Hanna is aware that that’s what’s going on. This doesn’t stop the detective from badgering her and the other leads about their connections to Allison’s disappearance and death. Then, Hanna wants to lose her virginity to her boyfriend but he wants to wait for religious reasons, and so in a humiliated huff she storms off and takes his car, and gets into an accident with it, and gets caught again, requiring her to do community service for his mother — a dentist — to pay for the damages. This is about the same time that her mother makes it clear that they don’t have the money to maintain their lifestyle after her father left them, and Hanna makes her first nice gesture by selling some things online and using it to buy the foods and things that her mother — and her — like but can’t afford. At the same time, her father returns and wants to see her, which she is thrilled by because she misses him and is having trouble with his leaving … and it turns out that he only came back to try to “help” her with her problems after she stole the car, and also to introduce her to his new fiance and soon-to-be stepdaughter. Soon after that, she finds out about some therapy that a suspect is going through and when that suspect is dating Emily has to run out during the Homecoming Dance to get it so that they can convince Emily that he’s dangerous before he hurts her (which he does before they can do that). This causes her to miss her coronation as Homecoming Queen, which was really important to her, and which also completely badly damages her relationship with her boyfriend. She then manages to piss off her friend Mona enough for her to uninvite her from a big party, which means that she can spy on the party since A says that they’ll find something out there, and while spying she sees something that arguably A — or someone else — doesn’t want her to know, causing them to run her down with a car, breaking her leg. While in the hospital, A is kind enough to sign her cast with a nasty message, which as you might imagine freaks Hanna out. Then, after that, when she gets home she finds some money that her mother had stolen from the bank where she worked revealing just how much trouble her mother is in. Then, Mona throws a party at Hanna’s house which ends up with a confrontation with her boyfriend, and with the money being stolen. A kindly decides to dare Hanna to do things to earn some of that money back, which results in Hanna being driven to do enough things to completely alienate her boyfriend and also to almost rat out Aria’s relationship with a teacher, which is only saved at the last minute when a new guy that she meets in detention sabotages Aria’s mother’s car (she had dealt with him before to unlock a cell phone for Emily to talk to her girlfriend). Then out of guilt she tells Aria about that and Aria blows up on her. And her mother ends up finding out that the person who owned the safety deposit box that she stole the money from has died and her last remaining family has returned, and so the theft will be discovered. Hanna gets incredibly worried about it because, as she says, she can’t lose her mother, too. The guy helps her out by pointing out some oddities in the guy’s story, and it turns out that it’s all a scam, but then soon after her mother discovers that the guy has been living in their basement and dislikes him, but since Hanna is starting to develop feelings for him she goes and camps out with him one night and loses her virginity to him. And then she discovers that he was hired to get close to her by another enemy. It’s no wonder that she breaks down crying in the bathroom but doesn’t feel like she can talk to her mother about it. For most of the last half of the season, my most common remark on the show was “Poor Hanna!”.

Spencer doesn’t get quite as much of that treatment, but in the last half it’s pretty bad. They discover that her sister’s former boyfriend whom Spencer had had an affair with — at fifteen — was also having an affair with Allison (and this seemed like them treating this much more sleazy affair that was being treated the same as Aria’s until they used it to make him seem incredibly creepy so, well-played) and also was the one who killed Allison. He also has reunited with her sister and is living in a little apartment thing in her house, so she sees him everyday. She’s also not good at hiding her emotions and is a bit snarky, so she makes her dislike of him clear, and she’s smart enough to realize that if he killed Allison he might decide to kill her, making being in her house alone very tense. A also starts framing her for the murder of Allison which gets the police after her, which makes things around the house and around town worse. Then she goes to a carnival to meet the guy who was dating Emily as she’s interested in him now — she has a running subplot with dating people others dated first, twice to her sister and once to Emily after Emily moved on to, well, girls — and gets tricked into going into the Funhouse to meet him when he wasn’t there, gets locked in a small room with screams and things going on outside, and when she is rescued it’s by her sister’s boyfriend brandishing a crowbar at her. Then after getting into a car accident that puts her sister’s baby at risk — Spencer was driving and feels guilty for the accident — she goes looking for her sister’s things as which point her sister’s boyfriend tries to kill her and almost succeeds. Poor Spencer!

In fact, what’s done to the two of them completely overshadows anything done to the other two, which makes Aria’s comments that she would have resisted A in the same situation where Hanna didn’t hollow because Aria had never had to face, say, a threat to reveal the affair if she, say, ratted out the guy living in Hanna’s basement.

Let me touch on Emily’s gay storyline as well. I think it was relatively well-done for that sort of story. Emily’s father is more accepting of it and even gives the “It’s who she is!” line, but he doesn’t seem too convinced by it when her mother scoffs and ends up pretty much saying that the situation is hurting Emily and he doesn’t want her to hurt, so if accepting her stops her from hurting then that’s what he’ll do. Her mother is far more opposed to it, but does eventually somewhat come around when another parent gets upset that Emily might be receiving special privileges for being gay. Her mother rises to her defense, and the eventual detente between then is based more on the hurting angle above along with a realization that she will lose her daughter if she doesn’t bend a bit than on accepting that being gay is right or reasonable. And to the show’s credit they don’t have the daughter or someone else use that cliched line, but instead seem to have her realize that herself, mostly because the father is in the military and moves to a new post, leaving them behind, giving the mother plenty of time to see how lonely it is when her daughter won’t talk to her, and not so much out of anger but more out of fear and hurt.

There are a couple of things that worry me going forward about the show, both around the main plot with A. The first is that A is hypercompetent, always at least a step ahead of the girls and seemingly possessed with limitless information about their lives and what happens in them. This applies to their attempts to deal with A, as A is always prepared and they don’t seem to ever win. This can make it seem hopeless to even try to deal with A as they can never win against them. I would have liked to have seen them get the win against the guy who killed Allison, because it would have given some hope that they could eventually beat A in some way, and would still have allowed A’s comment at the very end of the season that said that if they thought it would end with Allison’s killer being caught they were wrong, setting up neatly for the second season while, again, giving some hope that A is not unbeatable.

The second thing is that the secrets and bad deeds come fast and heavy in the first season. Since subsequent seasons generally ramp up things like that, this runs the risk of making A’s plots and their reactions excessively convoluted and extreme, to the point of them being unbelievable. This is only more of a risk if they didn’t know from the start how many seasons they had, as they might very well peak too soon and have nowhere to go but to the ridiculous. While I’ve never watched it, some complaints about “Lost” seemed to be of this sort, and I don’t know if this show will fall into that trap. From the first season, though, it certainly looks like it’s at risk for it, since as we can see in Hanna’s arc a lot of things have already happened and it might be hard to top them.

Still, so far, in the first season, I’m enjoying it. The show seems to be a vehicle for Lucy Hale as Aria — she’s displayed the most prominently in the box and in the intro and even gets an ad for a different show of hers on the DVD previews — but so far the characters I most like are Hanna and Spencer, mostly because of all the bad things done to them that test their characters and let them reveal themselves as nicer than you might expect. Still, all the leads are sympathetic and so there is some interest in seeing them fighting against their unfair treatment at the hands of A. We’ll see if this carries on in the remaining seasons.

3 Responses to “First Thoughts on “Pretty Little Liars” (End Season 1)”

  1. Thoughts on “The Birthday Cake” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] star in this case is Ashley Benson, who I knew from her work in “Pretty Little Liars”.  There’s also a number of other big names like Ewan McGregor and Val Kilmer, but to be […]

  2. Final Thoughts on “House M.D.” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] good reason, as from what I discovered later I think it’s done by the same guy).  But like “Pretty Little Liars”, “House M.D.” has some unique features that make it more palatable than a regular […]

  3. Thoughts on “Scream 4” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] to “The Birthday Cake” the movie really uses well-known actors well.  Lucy Hale of “Pretty Little Liars” is in the first death sequence, and I recognized Kristen Bell in the second, but Hayden Pantierre […]

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