ABC Family is hyping the heck out of the Season 2 premiere of Pretty Little Liars in January, so time to catch up. This show that looks something like Desperate Housewives for teenagers has a slick look and sinister-sounding previews.
The pilot opens in full-on horror movie mode. A group of cute girls are sitting around a candle-lit barn while the wind howls against the creaky door. They’re creeped out by a sound from outside and stand, as a group, ready to face terror. It turns out to be just their friend sneaking up on them. We do a 180 into a much-too-quick scene of some slumber party chatter. (Is the fact that they like Beyonce important, or is this just an awkward attempt at natural-sounding teen banter?) Then they pass a big cup filled with some dark liquid. There’s a mention of the beverage making people share secrets, and one of them says, “Our secrets are what keep us close.” This last quote is imbued with a kind of weight cluing us into its importance.
In the morning the last girl to have arrived, Alison (Sasha Pieterse, who showed up in the later, less-watchable episodes of Heroes), has disappeared. Up to this point we have jumped from one situation to another with lightening speed and absolutely no chance for character development. So are we shocked that this girl is gone? Not really.
At last we start getting to know one of the girls, Aria (Lucy Hale of Privileged). One year has passed since the opening scenes, and Aria’s family has just moved back to town after her father’s sabbatical in Europe. Aria’s mother (Holly Marie Combs) encourages her to reconnect with her friends, but clearly things have changed. In fact, we are reminded at every turn how much things have changed. This is one example of how this show tells the audience things rather than showing them.
The town is Rosewood, Pennsylvania, the kind of pretty East Coast town with an air of evil reminiscent of Amityville. Aria’s return to school gives the opportunity for exposition and further character introductions. It’s the “Prodigal Son/Daughter” pilot formula. Although Aria’s mother points out for the audience that a year is a long time in the life of a 16-year-old, it feels like the passage of time is treated a little too seriously. “I almost didn’t recognize you,” says a classmate to Aria. “Last time I saw you, you had a pink streak in your hair.”
The only point about the school social hierarchy that seems important to remember for now is that a formerly geeky girl, who our heroines picked on, is now popular and cute (translation, she got contacts). In scenes with each of the four remaining girls, Aria, Spencer, Hanna, and Bianca, we begin to see that honesty is not a virtue in Rosewood. They lie, they shoplift, and they flirt with sisters’ boyfriends. Each of the girls receives a mysterious message—either by text or note—warning her that someone is watching her unethical behavior, and signed “A.”
Alison’s body is discovered, and a funeral is held. At this point we’ve begun to suspect that one or more of the girls might know more than they’re saying about Alison’s death. Yet, from the cryptic conversation of the girls combined with the semi-anonymous messages, it seems she might not really be dead. Certainly these pretty little liars have a secret, but it turns out that their secret—one of them, anyway—concerns not Alison, but a girl named Jenna.
It’s clear there are a lot of layers here, and while the delivery may not be the most sophisticated, the show promises to ask for some loyalty on the part of the audience. It’s great when a pilot leaves you with no clue what’s going on, and this one does that.