There are two kinds of good television. There are the thought provoking, high brow, literary shows like ‘Mad Men‘ and ‘The Wire.‘ If they were a food, they’d be braised salmon over arugula infused with the essence of thyme. Then there’s the other kind of fulfilling television, that satisfies junk food cravings. If ‘Pretty Little Liars‘ were a food it would be the KFC Double Down. It’s so very, very bad for you, but despite your better judgment, you crave it.
The new teen drama from ABC Family premieres Tuesday, June 8 (8/7c). It’s a show about a group of friends who are taunted with text messages, seemingly sent by their missing friend, that threaten to reveal all their deep dark secrets. With its beautiful teen girl characters who are constantly on their cell phones, the natural comparison is ‘Gossip Girl.’ But that show, at its best, is a tart social satire. PLL, as it will be inevitably nicknamed, plays it straight. There is no veneer of sophistication or irony, no morals or life lessons imparted. This is a straight up, old school soap opera that happens to be about people who are not old enough to vote. It is devoid of any redeeming values. The production values are minimal. The dialogue is equal parts cliched and expository. And it all works. I loved every ridiculous, irresponsible second of it. As the few people who watched the new ‘Melrose Place‘ flounder can attest, creating a good guilty pleasure can be every bit as difficult as creating a show that is actually good.
By the end of the pilot there has been *spoiler alert* possible statutory rape, drug use, alcohol consumption, shoplifting, transactional sex, alcohol consumption at a church, a near lesbian kiss, much bitchery, a corpse, and compulsive dessert eating. The dessert is the only misbehavior that seems to inspire any remorse. This show is the true heir apparent to ‘Dynasty‘ coupled with the biggest dose of wish fulfillment fantasy since ‘Hannah Montana.’
Yeah, sure, the prototypical four friends – artsy Aria (Lucy Hale), jock Emily (Shay Mithcell ), overachiever Spencer (Troian Bellisario), and neurotic It Girl Hanna (not a typo) (Ashley Benson) – are allegedly haunted by the disappearance of the fifth member of their clique Allison (Sasha Pieterse), who is shown in flashbacks to be a passive-aggressive bitch who feels the need to point out all of her friends shortcomings for their own good. But they live the lives that every fifteen year old girl dreams of. All are preternaturally poised and self-aware, even when they are expressing their own insecurities. In this universe, teenagers are mature, desirable and the center of the universe.
Take Aria’s relationship with Ezra Fitz (Ian Harding), a blatant rip off of the ‘Grey’s Anatomy‘ pilot. She meets the fresh out of college Adam Brody look-alike in a restaurant that sure looks a lot like a bar. They banter a bit about writing. She lets him think she is a college student. Next thing you know, they are hooking up in the bathroom. In real life, a guy in his early twenties would think of this as meaningless casual sex with a girl he had no interest in ever seeing again. In the world of PLL, he cares about her. When he turns out to be her English teacher, he snubs her. But she confidently pursues him, telling him, “You feel like this is right for us.” He is swayed by her words.
The theme that these girls are way too mature for high school boys also plays out in the instant connection between Spencer and her older sister’s adorably nerdy British fiance. Bellasario gives the most interesting performance on the show, giving the overachiever she plays an edge that suggests simmering repressed rage. Of course a med school student would be instantly fascinated by a high school junior. It’s a compelling fantasy. Every teenage girl is convinced she is more mature and sophisticated then the high school boys. But even ‘Gossip Girl’ did not make any of its major couples relationships technically illegal.
Emily is supposedly struggling with her sexual orientation. She’s so deep in the closet she has a boyfriend. But that does not stop her from busting a move on her ancient new neighbor – who is allegedly still in high school – a few days after meeting with her. Casting the 31 year old Bianca Lawson — who also plays all-powerful 19th century adult witch Emily on ‘Vampire Diaries’ as a teenager may be the most absurd aspect of this absurd show. I hope it turns out that she is a con artist masquerading as a college student so that her presence makes some sense.
The show works in large part because it is well structured. Every act break is a cliffhanger. The characters are clearly defined. The pilot packs almost as much plot into 44 minutes as an episode of ‘Vampire Diaries,’ clearly defining all of the major characters, their arcs, and their relationships. The texts from seemingly beyond the grave are hilarious. When Hanna gets arrested for shoplifting, she receives one that reads, “I hear prison food makes you fat.” But the mystery behind them is solid. I found myself as curious about what happened to Allison and who sent the texts as I was about what happened to Mary-Alice on the first season of ‘Desperate Housewives.’ The reveal that the girls may have done something very, very bad to one of their peers results in the most hilarious over-the-top character introduction since Joan Collins was introduced wearing a veil to a courtroom on ‘Dynasty.’ I don’t want to give it away, but should you happen to be a ‘The Young & The Restless‘ fan –and if you are an adult who is watching this show there’s a good chance you are — let’s just say that the much-maligned actress who used to play Colleen, Tammin Sursok, has finally found a role that caters to her limited capabilities.
I urge everyone who has a fondness for beach books, candy and the occasional Lifetime movie to check this show out. Like sunshine and cut offs, it’s a summer pleasure.