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.
Such is Pretty Little Liars, ABC Family's high-gloss, low-IQ drama in which the central character has been dead for years.
Or so we're led to believe. Certainly Alison DiLaurentis—the one-time pretty, popular and petulant queen bee of Rosewood High—hasn't been seen alive for quite a while now. And the fact that someone dug up her corpse a few seasons back would seem to be a clincher. As Alison's friend Aria says, "I went to her funeral. Twice!"
But if Alison isn't stalking the streets, the secrets she held most certainly are.
Before mysteriously vanishing, Alison ruled a merry band of up-and-coming mean girls—Hanna, Spencer, Aria and Emily—by keeping secrets and wielding an acerbic wit. But even with Alison's presumed passing, the girls are still being stalked, blackmailed and bullied by a strange entity (or perhaps entities) which calls itself "A." And as the girls try (for several seasons now) to uncover just who or what A actually is, they must also navigate the town's web of lies and deceit, speculate on the latest murder and preserve their own "little" fibs.
If this show has anything going for it, it's the fact that it doesn't take itself too seriously. Everyone involved seems to be aware that Pretty Little Liars will never be mistaken for Mad Men. The stakes are serious, but the tone is light.
Too bad we can't say the same about the content. Drug use, sexual liaisons (both gay and straight), provocative clothing and, of course, that titular wall-to-wall lying make this show as healthy and palatable as a deep-fried Twinkie battered with hot sauce. Teens behave badly. Their parents can be worse. And all those pretty faces that ABC Family found for this show don't make its content any less ugly.
The New York Times reviewer Ginia Bellafante called 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 haven't seen much that could be construed as a curfew in the episodes we've watched so far. And if it is there, these girls aren't minding it.
"Turn of the Shoe"
The girls speculate on the murder of two police officers and fret about their secrets being exposed. They and mysterious frienemy Mona go looking for a missing RV. But a masked, would-be killer awaits. The interloper tries to strangle Mona, steals her car and nearly runs the girls over. Emily suffers a bad bruise on her shoulder.
To counteract the pain and compete in an important swimmeet, Emily pilfers pills from the family medicine cabinet. But she's so high during the race that she smacks her head into the wall. She bleeds and is lifted out, unconscious. Elsewhere, Emily and her lesbian lover, Blair, kiss twice and plan out their Stanford dorm room. (Emily thinks they should move the beds closer together.)
Aria takes self-defense lessons and smooches her instructor. Hannah wonders why her mother is lying to her about several things and speculates that perhaps she had something to do with one of the murdered officers. There's talk of Alison being involved with an older man—spending the weekend with him in her parents' beach house and leaving beer bottles strewn across the place. Someone steals a parrot and tries to feed it part of a Cornish hen. Characters appear in swimsuits and tight-fitting pants. They say "h‑‑‑" and "frickin'." They misuse God's name. Snide references are made about people resembling Satan and going to hell. Kids discuss skipping school. Adults drink wine.
"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.