Pretty Little Liars

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.

Charmed (Unaired)

Blogging about the Charmed pilot, “Something Wicca This Way Comes,” has been on my to-do list for some time, but how much more fun is it to cover the unaired pilot? It’s available on YouTube (legally or not I couldn’t say).

In a nutshell, Charmed is the story of the Haliwell sisters, Phoebe, Piper (Holly Marie Combs) and Prue (Shannen Doherty), who learn that they are witches, each with a unique power.

The setup in this version of the pilot is identical. Some of the footage looks to be the same as what aired. Two sisters living in their dead grandmother’s San Francisco house are joined by their third, black sheep sister returned from New York. In the meantime, a detective is trying to solve a series of murders of young women. These events are set against the backdrop of a raging thunderstorm, lending an air of foreboding.

The most unmistakable difference is that Phoebe, the youngest sister, is played not by Alyssa Milano but by Lori Rom, who went on to play a recurring role on Party of Five. This Phoebe is more down-to-earth, lacking the perkiness Milano brought to the role. The trick to Phoebe is that we, the audience, have to like her even though she annoys the heck out of Prue. She needs an impishness that Rom doesn’t pull off. Rom dresses dumpier too; the costumers later made the most of Milano’s hot bod.

Phoebe drives the action throughout the story, so it was important to get the casting right. Her curious nature catalyzes the discoveries that bring the sisters their powers. She is the only one brave enough to venture into the attic when directed there by a spirit board. She recites the incantation that instills the powers, and she continues to read the Book of Shadows and educate her sisters about witchcraft. As the Phoebe character is described, “She has no vision, no sense of the future.” This observation is one of many examples of ironic foreshadowing in the pilot, since Phoebe gains the power to see visions of the future.

In both versions, character introductions and exposition evolve pretty naturally, with one glaring exception. Phoebe asks Piper, “I’m glad you’re still with Jeremy. Where did you meet him anyway?” The answer hints at the “twist” to come, wherein Jeremy is a warlock specifically preying on the sisters. It’s not particularly surprising when he pulls a knife (an athame) on Piper in an abandoned building.

What I’ve never understood about this pilot—this version or the final one—is why they try so hard to be truthful to what Wicca is all about while at the same time making it so far-fetched. Both versions open with an anonymous woman setting up an alter and calling the gods/goddesses to oversee a ritual. The writers explain to us what at athame is and make a point of explaining the Wiccan rede and that witches are not evil—obviously important if we’re to sympathize with the protagonists. This point is subtly different between the two versions, actually. In the unaired pilot, Phoebe says, “A true witch is a good witch,” and in the aired pilot she says, instead, “A witch can be either good or evil.” Either way, the powers of the witch in the opening, and the Haliwell witches, are the stuff of science fiction.

  There are some details missing from the unaired version—tattoos on the murder victims,—and some things that are done better. In the unaired version, Phoebe’s bike accident makes her look foolish, reminiscent of Stacy in Wayne’s World. Prue’s conversation with Detective Andy Trudeau is much shorter, giving less basis for their future relationship. The aired version contains some back story about the Haliwells’ father; Prue doesn’t like him, and only Phoebe is still in touch with him. Basically, the aired version gives more information to build on for the future.

In the end, the women have to overcome their various levels of skepticism about witchcraft and stand together—literally—chanting about “the power of three.” This climactic scene embodies the theme of the whole show, that the three (never mind that one of them gets replaced) have to learn to count on each other.

Happy Halloween!