Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Reflections of, and on Pretty Little Liars

Pretty Little Liars, in essence, held up a mirror to society’s perception of teenage girls. Beneath the outrageous plots, the series proved to be a unique platform exploring cyber bullying, teen sexuality, and myriad interpretations of female empowerment in modern America.

How do you sum up seven seasons of a show in one blog post? Pretty Little Liars was an interesting, hypnotic, and addictive series, occasionally a hot mess, sometimes sublime, and often a stunning feat of visual storytelling.

The show that inspired text dread.
“Hyperreality” has always been a catch cry of the show. Teen life in the made up town of Rosewood was both familiar and unfamiliar, like a strange dream: viewers were immersed, and then constantly saturated, in the surreal, fantastical intensity.

The story kicked off with the blackmail of our leads via a cyber-bully known as “A” one year after their friend Alison disappeared. Each girl has something to hide, and A manipulates our leads like puppets… But when Alison’s body shows up the “game” becomes dangerous.

Sometimes "A" went for old school over tech.
Over the course of the series more than one A is revealed, but to be honest, these twists seem somewhat irrelevant: the power of the show lies in the journey.

At each step the “liars”,  as the group of girls are known, chose between loyalty to friends, family, or lovers; considered how far they’re go to protect a secret or expose the truth; and decided who to believe—and who to lie to.

(Round of applause from Team Sparia.)

The adults of Rosewood, flawed by their suburban mindset, excel at ethically questionable choices and distasteful compromises to protect their concept of family and more importantly, reputation. Most men in Rosewood were revealed to be either incompetent, corrupt, weak, predatory—or all of the above.

Moms Of PLL, the spin-off we're all waiting for.
There were as many references to classic film and literature as there were to pop culture. Pretty Little Liars wasn’t afraid to be clever, and celebrated intelligent women, but it also explored the pitfalls and false safety that came from relying on superior intellect: the hubris of a high IQ and an arguably low EIQ.

Perception is key, and at times PLL felt like a kaleidoscope. Twist the lens a little, and you could see another perspective. Being “strong” was open to interpretation. Emily and Hanna’s versions differed greatly from, say, Mona's and Charlotte's.

When you and your friends suddenly become bridal models.
The character of Spencer was arguably the leader of the liars. It could also be said she qualified as somewhat of a bully. Deciding on a culprit, she pursued and persecuted with zealous. And while remorseful when her conclusions proved wrong, she was just as rabid with the next person in her sights.

The cool thing was you could throw ideas like this around online, and have myriad reactions come back at you because the show existed in a relatively new mental zone: the fandom got to enjoy a TV show in an era of rampant social media interaction spanning podcast, recaps and fan fiction. You were never alone in watching Pretty Little Liars—the Internet made sure of that.

Let's be honest: pre-disappearance Alison
was a hella scary mean girl.
The leads’ burgeoning sexuality was explored from a few angles. Some of the girls experimented with employing sexuality as a manipulative tool. Others were judged based on their love lives, persecuted via rumor and speculation.

And of course the series showed that love leads to vulnerability as much as empowerment. An ex-boyfriend murdered Maya, and other supporting characters like Shana and Ian were driven by love to try and harm the liars, while A uses the liars’ lovers to manipulate them.

(Good gasp face was a prerequisite for a role on this show btw.)

But it wasn't all hugs and roses. Aria’s relationship with her predatory teacher Ezra Fitz divided fans. (The decision to pair the characters with their original high school love interests by the series finale, including said teacher, was another divisive choice.)

Rarely has a show soared so high, tripped over its own feet, picked itself up, and reached for the stars again—only to repeat the process. Part of the erratic quality was due to the epic amount of episodes (totaling 160). This meant an array of writers, speedy production, and the problem of guest actors being unavailable as their success soared, cutting off storylines. (And viewers can only guess at network input as the show’s popularity grew.)

How Jason made it through this show
sane remains the greatest mystery.
At it’s worst, PLL stumbled with characters who weren’t consistent in their behavior, dropped narratives, a problematic presentation of transgender character Charlotte, occasionally romanticized presentation of mental illness (including the psychiatric hospital that was more like a bed and breakfast from Twin Peaks), and got out of narrative corners they’d written themselves into by employing outlandish soapie plot devices.

Cece/Charlotte loved a good game.
Alison’s return from the faux-dead was difficult because the character had reached mythic proportions in the mind of viewers. Likewise the infamous time jump, that saw the story move forward a few years, was extremely problematic—the evolution of the characters appeared to have stalled, or even backtracked, in their years away from the screen.

Post time jump liars were a tad boozy.
But at its best, PLL had audiences on the edge of their seat with stories both diabolical and touching, offering interesting and multi-faceted social commentary, and complex female characters who (mostly) made brave, clever choices in the face of adversity.

Who could forget Emily coming out to her dad Wayne, or her mom Pam’s difficulties adjusting? Or the moment the audience learned of Hannah’s history with an eating disorder? Or discovering the perfect Spencer had a drug problem? Or realizing the long-term, deeply damaging impact Alison’s bullying had on Mona and Lucas?

Wayne ftw.
The hypocrisy of the deeply flawed and wealthy Hastings family was riveting. Ashley exchanging sexual favors with a corrupt cop to keep her daughter’s criminal record clean was thought provoking. The familial isolation of Caleb and Tobey, and their subsequent self-sufficiency and emotional vulnerability was well written.

The Sweet Team
And visually let’s not forget the wild styling and stunning direction (the show had a darkness to it that wasn’t just metaphorical)—not to mention an actual “noir” episode. Pretty Little Liars managed to straddle the commercial requirements of being on a relatively conservative network while pushing the boundaries of standard teen TV. (Kudos on the soundtrack too.)

Remember Ravenswood?
Because empowerment was a core theme, one of the most disturbing (yet enthralling) elements of the series was a lust for control, and the resulting dehumanization. The mysterious A treated the liars like dolls, playing with their lives, and at one point built a life-sized dollhouse, complete with replica bedrooms, in which to imprison them. Dolls, masks, magic tricks, and illusions… Pretty Little Liars was constantly upping its symbolic game.

Like a never-ending whodunit, the series piled on the mysteries and crimes. Life for the liars was full of twisted adventures, usually with A at the core. “This enemy is everywhere and nowhere at the same time,” said resident hacker Caleb of the elusive troublemaker, while Emily baldly stated, “A is a terrorist.”

The show was fuelled by choice and consequence but the guiding light was that the often tested bond between the young women  proved unbreakable. The liars’ litany of mistakes is breathtaking, yet their character flaws and weaknesses were acknowledged and accepted by the rest of the crew. Female friendship was given more screen time than romantic love.

It's Tippy!
So, time to say vale PLL. Goodbye to wildly inappropriate cocktail funeral attire, and fantastical storylines that included clues from Tippy the talking bird. To a town that had more social events than New York City. To a show that even when it momentarily failed, failed with flair. To Mona, one of my favorite female characters ever on television.

Such an interesting woman.
To a place where the years and seasons never seemed to follow the laws of the universe. To infinite procedural red herrings. To countless examples of awe-inspiring attempts at emotional manipulation. To the endless employment of popular plot devices, from secret adoptions, psychics, hidden tunnels, unearthed bodies, infidelity, and evil twins (‘ello Alex).

Hats off to the hard work and imagination of a cast and crew who took the original premise and ran with it to entertaining extremes. Thanks for showing that a group of teenage girls were capable of not just surviving persecution, but fighting back, while taking control of their futures—with the help of their friends.

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