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October 29, 2013

Join the A Team: Why You Should Give Pretty Little Liars a Chance

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If you’ve been on Twitter on a Tuesday evening, you’ve probably seen more than a few confusing hashtags with capital “A’s” in them. Last night, for example, #hAlloween was on the list of trending topics for a few hours, both in the US and globally. That’s because on Tuesday nights, Twitter essentially belongs to the viewership of “Pretty Little Liars,” ABC Family’s mystery-drama golden child loosely based on the young adult book series by Sara Shepard. Last night was this year’s long-anticipated Halloween episode, always aired during the hiatus between the first and second parts of the season. Millions of viewers tuned in, including this 21-year-old college student. My latest tweet? #AisforAlive.

Before we get into why I have dedicated three years of my life to borderline obsessively following a show for teenagers, let me catch you up. “Pretty Little Liars  tells the story of four high school friends (Aria, Spencer, Emily and Hanna) who live in the fictional town of Rosewood, PA. They become estranged after their queen bee leader, Alison DiLaurentis, goes missing. A year later, the four reunite when they begin to receive threatening messages from “A” --- hence the hashtags --- who sounds a lot like Alison. At first, they think that she may be back, but then her body is found and the case of her disappearance becomes a murder investigation.

What happens next is a quest to answer three questions: Who killed Alison? Who is A? And how are those people connected? We discover that Alison had many secrets of her own, and more than a few people in town wouldn’t have minded seeing her disappear. In the meantime, A seems all knowing, and the girls begin to see A (or at least who they think is A) lurking in a black hoodie, which they can never quite catch a glimpse beneath. Then there comes the big question: Is A only one person, or a whole team? Either way, it becomes clear that A isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and he or she or they continue to torment the girls via cryptic texts and creepy packages. These packages normally involve creepy dolls, which is awful.

Now, I am willing to bet that some of you reading this (more likely the ladies) watch this show. Why will I take that bet? Because despite its narrow target demographic, “Pretty Little Liars consistently snags the #1 spot for its timeslot among females ages 18-34, which means there is a hard-to-ignore number of 20Somethings out there watching. Maybe you’re not at the level of throwing black hoodie parties for season premieres and scheduling Skype meetings with your friends afterward to discuss (yeah, totally, me neither), but you’re watching. I seriously could have used you guys around today because I have been dying to discuss last night, and no one in the office watches. If you do, I know you feel my pain.

If you don’t, I’m sure you’re wondering. Of all the shows you could possibly choose to invest your time in, why on earth would this be your choice? Well, friend, that is a long story. Let me tell you, loving this show as a 20Something has been an emotionally trying journey, but I am going to attempt to explain why, even with its flaws (which are many and which I acknowledge), this show deserves its 20Something audience, and why all of you need to start watching right now. Aside from the fact that I need more people (aside from the 16-year-olds who run the PLL Tumblrs I follow) to spin theories with and for me. Anyway.

First, the core mystery of the show --- who killed Alison --- is a whodunit that puts the predictable fare of primetime TV to shame. This, along with the mystery of A’s identity, is why there is so much talk after each episode. Each is packed with clues, some of obvious (like new information from a flashback) and some not so obvious (like what’s on the wall in Alison’s room). One of the favorite adages of creator and main writer I. Marlene King is “Nothing is a coincidence in Rosewood,” which means you have to assume everything is relevant. It’s sort of exhausting. Not to mention there’s the constant question of who is telling the truth, and there are moments when I think this show has given me permanent trust issues. Sometimes, when yet another red herring goes down, I find myself yelling at the TV screen. But mostly it just gives me something interesting to think about on the subway. For those of you who are weary of the predictable “CSI” formula, this show can be your antidote.

On a similar note, this show is dark. Is it Silence of the Lambs dark? Okay, no. But sometimes I wonder how the things they pull can fly with the 12 year-olds out there in TV Land. Like that one time Alison’s remains were stolen and A sent the girls a necklace with her teeth strung in with the beads. Don’t let the ABC Family label fool you, guys. Granted, there is lots of comic relief (some intentional and some unintentional) in between all the suspense and dramatic tension, but when push comes to shove, “PLL”is not afraid to go there with the gore.

Without giving too much away, I will say that the range of characters on the show is not only enough to keep the mystery going with secret relationships and ulterior motives, but also enough to keep you invested for the long haul. The four girls who hold down the fort are played by good actresses (Troian Bellisario as Spencer is in a class of her own, in my opinion) and they have a genuine friendship that is believably worth fighting for in the face of all of A’s attempts to tear them apart. The show has been lauded for its portrayal of female friendship (and passes The Bechdel Test with flying colors), which is refreshing. And while the friendship of the four main girls and the mystery are the main focuses of the plot, there is no shortage of romance and drama. The best part is that the love interests of the girls aren’t just ornamental; the plotlines of their significant others are woven into the Alison and A mysteries as well. Some of them more than others, as we are quickly learning. Eeep.

Of course at the center of it all is the mysterious Alison, who was often more an enemy than a friend. Alison’s manipulative personality makes her a figure that’s hard to shake. Fans of gothic lit will find a bit of DuMaurier’s REBECCA in her. On that note, the show is filled with references just waiting to be appreciated by well-read 20Somethings. For starters, the books the characters are reading are always relevant. (What is this show if not a murder mystery cyber stalker version of LORD OF THE FLIES?) Not to mention the recurring LOLITA motif. I’m not kidding --- there was a scene in one episode with a bug zapper on a porch that was almost lifted straight from the 1997 film remake of the novel. Moreover, several of the episodes have been modeled after Alfred Hitchcock films, including North by Northwest and Psycho. I weep knowing that much of this brilliance is lost on the show’s younger audience.

I could go on and on but my point is that “Pretty Little Liars is not to be underestimated. There isn’t a time of year more perfect than October to bring a murder mystery into your life, and the first three seasons are conveniently available for instant streaming on Netflix. My advice: Embrace the ridiculousness that pervades the show and don’t be surprised when you’re depressed for the entire duration of season 3B. Also, be wary of Internet spoilers --- a huge bomb was dropped in last night’s episode that will change everything. I’m still dealing with the emotional ramifications and I’m going to need all the help I can get. I’ll be waiting after you catch up and we can discuss. I have a black hoodie here with your name on it.