The high school scene in fictional Rosewood, Pa., feels less like higher ed and more like high melodrama—a world where wealth, beauty, secrets and sex drives converge to create a steamy soap opera. It's been more than a year since Alison DiLaurentis inexplicably disappeared from the center of Rosewood's show, and her fate is the crux on which ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars (based on Sara Shepard's book series of the same title) turns.
Before mysteriously vanishing, Alison ruled a merry band of up-and-coming mean girls—Hanna, Spencer, Aria and Emily—by holding secrets and wielding an acerbic wit. Now the order of the day for those remaining is shoplifting compulsions, affairs with teachers, sexual betrayals and lesbian experimentation. And that's just the teens. The lies and affairs tumble through the episodes like so many rolling stones, making it pretty difficult even for serious fans to keep up with them all—much less TV critics who can only manage to tune in every so often.
The New York Times reviewer Ginia Bellafante calls Pretty Little Liars "a teenage wasteland with an all-seeing eye," while Media Week's Anthony Crupi says it's "like Gossip Girl with a curfew." But we didn't see much of any curfew corralling the episodes we've watched so far. And if it is there, these girls aren't minding it.
Drug and alcohol use, foul language, scanty clothing, sexual innuendo and some passionate make-out scenes—straight and homosexual—all make Pretty Little Liars a series that does absolutely nothing to support the "Family" in its channel's name.
"If These Dolls Could Talk"
The girls' search for "A" gets a little beyond-the-grave help from Alison, who stops by to visit Spencer in the middle of the night. It could be a dream, but she takes a couple of Spencer's painkillers "for the road," and Spencer wakes up to find both her door and the painkiller bottle open.
The girls also visit a creepy doll store, where a boy tells them that Alison visited the business asking about a voodoo doll—adding that he felt bad about how she died (information never released to the public). "He sees things," the store's owner explains. "Things that haven't happened yet. He's gifted." Later, the girls break into the store and discover a bloodied doll repeating, "Follow me and end up like me." They're freaked and wreck half the store as they run for the door.
When it looks like her parents might send Aria to boarding school (breaking up her affair with teacher Ezra), Aria threatens to blackmail them—revealing her father's affair with a grad student. Then Ezra gets fired, and he tells Aria he'll be leaving town—news that prompts the two to start kissing and disrobing as they lie down on the couch. (We see him shirtless, her in a bra). There's one "h‑‑‑" and one "b‑‑ch."
"If at First You Don't Succeed, Lie, Lie Again"
Alison still haunts and perplexes the little liars, seemingly from beyond the grave. In a "previously seen on …" montage, Hanna's mom "steals" $50,000. In this episode, Alison tries to blackmail Hanna and wants to make sure that Aria's mother will see Aria with Ezra, the adult English teacher whom the teen is secretly and illicitly dating.
Emily breaks a swim record and is tormented by Paige, a girl who's gunning to be swim team captain. To defend Emily, Spencer says she "will destroy" Paige. Aria offers to help. Later, Paige holds Emily's head underwater as a threat.
Couples kiss. Girls wear towels in a locker room. A man goes shirtless. God's name is misused at least once, as are the words "h‑‑‑" and "d‑‑n." Hanna mentions tequila. A crass reference to homosexuality is used against Emily. Menstrual cramps and French kissing are joked about. A student steals a car engine part to guarantee that a teacher doesn't leave town. Spencer spins out a lie—then confesses.
"To Kill a Mocking Girl"
Shoplifting is "justified"—largely by Hanna's mom using her sexual wiles to derail the investigation of her daughter's crime. The detective responsible for that investigation is ultimately seen wearing only a towel in front of Hanna and her mom. The four withhold information from police and lie, too.
Having sex in high school is said to be what makes a relationship real, and a friend asks Hanna, "How long can you wait before you lose him?" So is it any wonder Hanna tries to seduce her boyfriend, even giving him a condom? (He walks away.) She tells him not to quote Scripture for why he won't have sex and is so hurt by his "rejection" that she takes his car and wrecks it (perhaps unintentionally). Emily's boyfriend, meanwhile, tries to have sex with her even when she fights against it. (A mysterious teen protects her by slugging the guy in the face.) Maya passionately kisses Emily.
Spencer plagiarizes his history paper. Adults and teens drink alcohol. Sexual innuendo—both straight and gay—mixes with expletives such as "bloody," "d‑‑n" and abuses of God's name.
"The Jenna Thing"
Hanna pours alcohol into her soda at a restaurant. (Then she's disrespectful to a shocked adult who watches her.) Spencer sneaks a cocktail or two at dinner with her dad. Drinking games are joked about, as are breast implants. The core four lie to a detective, then try to reassure themselves that they're A-OK by telling one another that lying's not a crime. Refusing to take responsibility for their actions, the girls agree that telling the truth about Alison and what happened "that night" will ruin their own lives.
In a flashback, we see an explosive prank that cost Jenna her eyesight. (The perpetrators later framed someone else for it.) Teens and adults kiss passionately, and though Hanna's boyfriend wants to wait to have sex (his father is a pastor), Hanna doesn't. Girls and women wear low-cut tops and very short skirts and shorts.
There are several misuses of God's name, as well as "d‑‑n" and "frickin'." "Up yours" is said in Latin and English. Sexual innuendo is used. Aria's teacher continues his "romantic" relationship with her, lying to her mother and his colleagues in the process. Aria's father refuses to tell his wife about his affair.