Hitchcock for Teens: In Defense of ‘Pretty Little Liars’

Posted: October 29, 2012 in Television
Tags: , , ,

I have a confession to make: I watch a show named Pretty Little Liars. I say this with such trepidation because of the image this title evokes. Said image is one that suggests this show is about a group of Barbie girls gossiping, lying and playing bitchy games of one-upmanship with one another. In other words, another Gossip Girl clone or Desperate Housewives for teens. Funnily enough, when the series of books that the show is based on were conceived, the aim was to create a narrative that emulated that of Housewives but within a high-school setting. On that note, Pretty Little Liars does, indeed, have some quite obvious (albeit superficial) parallels to both Housewives and Gossip Girl. The show begins with the murder of a high-school queen bee in the small town of Rosewood. The event unites the girl’s four best friends who proceed to search for the truth behind this murder. Each episode interweaves the girls sleuthing escapades with each of their own storylines, echoing the set-up of Housewives’  first season. A further layer is added to the story via the elusive “A”, the girl’s unidentified tormentor who blackmails them through text messages and notes. “A” has something on each of the girls, as well as insight into the murder itself, making her or him simultaneously the girls’ greatest asset and greatest nightmare. There’s the Gossip Girl echoes.  This, however, is where the similarities between Pretty Little Liars and these two shows begin and end.

See PLL suffers the same curse as good shows such as The Good Wife and Cougar Town: a bad title which, in fact, opposes what the show is and is actually about. It also suffers from the fact that it is intentionally marketed towards girls who are just coming out of the Hannah Montana phase of their lives. Hence, I thought I was crazy for enjoying a show that was clearly designed for this age group and gender…and then I read this review on another blog. The review hits the nail on the head: you just can’t explain Pretty Little Liars to someone who hasn’t seen it. To do so, as the review points out, is to give away all the surprises and red herrings that the show dishes out every episode. That’s the thing about Pretty Little Liars: there really is no other teen show that’s quite like it. Sure, to keep the teenage crowd interested, there are the usual pretty people, romances and brand placements. Yet, unlike Gossip Girl and the similar 90210, this is not simply a show about characters who hook up, break up and  switch partners in an incestuous cycle. In other words, it’s not Bold & the Beautiful  with a younger cast and better production values. There’s actually little time for sex and shopping in Pretty Little Liars because to engage in such activities is to distract oneself from the game of cat and mouse that is continuously at play. The brilliance of PLL is that each plot is carefully constructed to integrate with the central murder mystery, making each character the girls engage with a potential suspect. The show requires us as viewers to enter a seedy sort of collaboration with the girls, decoding the numerous pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which are revealed to us at break-neck speed. A clever detail at the end of each episode is a brief scene which focuses in on an unidentified person who may or may not be “A” committing another malicious act which more than likely will prove essential to the process of further constructing the narrative in the next episode. Nothing is ever resolved in PLL making the show riveting, frustrating and fascinating in equal measure.

In TV terms I guess the best way to describe the show would be to compare it to Law & Order or Murder, She Wrote. Yet, in many ways, PLL is smarter and sharper than those two shows. I prefer to compare it to the storytelling techniques of the legendary Alfred Hitchcock because many of these techniques are present in each of the show’s episodes. As with the Hitchcock’s The BirdsPsycho and Dial M For MurderPLL is saturated with characters who have unclear motivations, chills that are delivered by the suggestion of violence rather than the action of it, as well as endings that leave nothing resolved.  One just has to watch the season 2 Halloween episode of PLL to see what I mean. The episode flashes back to a time before the series began, allowing us brief insight into how and why the central murder was set in motion. The action of the episode is underscored by a deep sense of foreboding. We know something terrible is going to happen. We just don’t know how or when. By the end of the episode we’ve been teased, frightened and threatened but the climax of the terror doesn’t occur. We are simply left with an open-ended ending that, through the suggestion of terror, is indeed more frightening that seeing the terror in full effect. The episode’s final scene reminds me of the final scene in The Birds where the fate of the characters is never determined and the threat of violence and death is ever-present as the words “The End” scrawl across the screen. That ending left me feeling cheated and confused, yet quite satisfied with the fact that these were the feelings I was left with. The same goes for the ending of the Halloween episode of PLL which plays with its audience’s expectations in the most intricate and sophisticated ways.

Of course, like the blogger I’ve referred to above, I don’t expect my friends to ever really take an interest in watching Pretty Little Liars . Considering the title and the implications that are associated with a female-centered teen show, I guess I can’t really blame them. Yet,  those who do dare take a chance on PLL will be greatly rewarded, especially during a Halloween viewing. I admit to loving a good, ridiculous slasher film but, for this Halloween, I’d much rather spend time decoding the mysteries of Rosewood. These mysteries might be lacking in humour but when it comes to suspense and intrigue, they’ve got it in abundance.

Source for pic 1: http://tvdonewright.com/2012/08/pretty-little-liars-recap-stolen-kisses/

Source for pic 2: http://blog.zap2it.com/frominsidethebox/2012/10/pretty-little-liars-halloween-spoiler-dies-and-ali-is-found-on-the-a-train.html

  1. Bless you! The similarities really just stop there!!

  2. Reblogged this on ardentfangirl and commented:
    Brother speaks my mind.

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