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Pretty Little Liars: Why This Soapy Teen Thriller Can Rub Shoulders With HBO’s Big Boys

Laura Vincent runs a one-woman roundtable discussion, presenting evidence as to why her favourite show Pretty Little Liars deserves just as much attention as Game of Thrones or The Wire.

It was sincerely and without hyperbole that I said, after watching the season six premiere of Pretty Little Liars, “that episode was literally better than any episode of Game of Thrones”. I came by this show relatively recently – a dear friend offhandedly recommended it to me, saying something along the lines of “you’ll like it, there’s lots of gay subplots and all the characters have really shiny hair”. I was sold. Within a very short time I’d hooned through it all. Since then this show has become a part of me. It has plaited itself into my life, from the moment I first furrowed my brow at how utterly soapy and implausible – yet thoroughly addictive – it is.

Here I present to you a roundtable discussion on the merits of show – except the only person at the table is me. I’m coming at this from two angles – firstly, that this show about teen girls is every bit as mind-blowing and wonderful as any HBO show about a man who is mean to his wife; and secondly that this show is full of pop culture parallels and fascinating themes. Read on for further evidence if you have any interest in say, Twin Peaks, or shows centering around women, or even… The Wire.

A brief synopsis before I start:

In the sleepy and prosperous Philadelphia town of Rosewood, Aria Montgomery, Hanna Marin, Emily Fields and Spencer Hastings are high school students who revolve around a sun named Alison DiLaurentis. Alison goes missing suddenly after one particularly dark sleepover. The girls, who had since awkwardly drifted apart, find themselves drawn back together because they’re being CONSTANTLY HARASSED via txt message, email, creepy dolls, words written in the condensation of a car window, words sewn into a wedding dress bodice, and so on.

This shady harasser calls themselves A, and continues to watch over them while they carry on living the teen girl life of falling in and out of love, worrying about school, dealing with their families and fighting off constant death threats. The biggest threat to their lives though? Well, the patriarchy, really, but also the showrunner, I. Marlene King.

Evidence #1: Parallels Between Pretty Little Liars and The Wire

In episode six of The Wire, the wise Lester Freamon says quietly, “all the pieces matter”. He’s not just referring to every shred of evidence being gathered in a drug case having some value – Freamon is also referring to Pretty Little Liars, if you ask me. What am I saying? If you liked The Wire, you’re going to love PLL. The following are a few of the parallels I’ve found.

1) Technology is at the center of both. The constant beeping of cellphones is part of the rhythm of Pretty Little Liars. As well as A contacting them through it, it’s obviously the girls’ main point of communication with each other. Instead of leaving people stranded and unable to talk to each other for forty minutes, the show plays on that particular dread you feel when your phone goes off and you’re really not sure that you want to see who is getting in touch with you or not.

2) Both shows have cool lesbians.

3) While the characters in The Wire are generously fleshed out, the show’s overall thrust is the utter failure of the justice system and other systems – notably education in season four – to the people both working in them and affected by them. Pretty Little Liars casts a similarly scathing eye over the police system. Barely an episode goes by where it seems like all their problems could be solved if they just went to the police.

The police of Rosewood are no more able to protect the girls than the police force portrayed in The Wire. This could be through incompetence, being incredibly crooked, or simply being dismissive of the girls’ plight. Even when secondary character Toby joins the force (achieved with hilariously improbable haste), he runs into brick walls and red tape and all manner of metaphors like that.

4) If you dig charismatic villains who are complicated, strangely goodhearted, and disarmingly sexy – your Omars and your Stringer Bells – you’re undoubtedly going to fall for Mona Vanderwall and Alison DiLaurentis. Mona goes from loser pariah to queen bee to Machiavellian Lord of All, while Alison’s trajectory is kind of the opposite. These two are just deliciously terrible while also plucking at your damn heart strings.

5) Both shows portray the difficulty in escaping your hometown, whether literally or metaphorically.

6) Let’s be quite real here, both are two of the most important and excellent American TV shows in recent history. Oh sure, anyone can go to a party and interrupt a conversation by inquiring urgently “yes but have you seen The Wire?” in order to assert that you yourself have seen it. I predict the next cliché will be people asking “yes but have you seen Pretty Little Liars?”

Evidence #2: Screencaps Without Context To Show How Utterly Terrifying This Show Is

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Somehow the font makes this creepier?

Somehow the font makes this creepier?

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A rolled up a message in a piece of paper and planted it in Hanna’s tooth when she was at the dentist. Just like, marinate in that idea for a while.

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As well as being scary as hell, this is also an example of the little easter eggs that the showrunners like to throw in – spot the A

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Evidence #3: It’s a Show About Girls Rescuing Girls

Before it’s a show about cyberbullying and having powerful hair, this is a show about friendship between teenage girls. Just as the married couples on TV sitcoms often appear to exist in a state of thinly-veiled hatred of each other, there are countless TV shows where the friend groups seem to be in perpetual conflict. Not so with Pretty Little Liars. It’s heartening how the four main girls really love each other, careening between affection and adoration and playful teasing, spilling over with frustrations that come from familiarity without crossing into uncomfortable cruelty.

Sad as it is, the constant terror of being pursued by A is clearly a large part of what keeps them together. Through this time of (seriously constant) trial, they support each other, build each other up, and continually rescue each other. They selflessly and carefully look out for each other and throw themselves at whatever Big Bad endangers them. They are the only ones who truly know what it’s like to go through these mind games and they’re the ones who know each other best.

Interestingly, if you watch right from the start you could wonder why they’re even friends. Emily answers that in episode two – Alison made them feel like they were part of something. They feel marooned without her ruling them, yet find that they can still have a deep friendship. These girls are smart and strong. They make stupid choices, they like pop music and shopping –they’re sort of girls whose stories are so often undervalued on account of their simply being teen girls. Despite the show being damn tense, it’s kind of wonderful to see – as Gene Belcher once sang – girls being girls being girls being girls.

Evidence #4: Screencaps Without Context To Show How Gorgeous and Cinematic This Show Is

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Evidence #5: What Pretty Little Liars Owes to Twin Peaks

Many TV shows show the handprint of Twin Peaks, from the gentle small-town weirdness of Gilmore Girls to the icy, familial darkness of Top of the Lake. Pretty Little Liars takes the themes and imagery of Twin Peaks and runs with it, in (and not limited to) the following ways. This connection is probably more obvious and credible than the comparison to The Wire but catch me caring?

Most obviously, you have your Central Dead Girl. Where would primetime drama be without her, that apparently necessary sacrifice to advance the plot and set action into motion. Like Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks, our McGuffin Alison DiLaurentis was a blonde queen bee with a tense home life and a group of friends captivated by her. She too conceals layer upon layer of secrets. Just when you think you’ve learned something crucial about her, Alison will sidestep and all the pieces you’ve put together will crumble. To reveal more secrets.

Also in Alison we have one of the most complex, ruthless, vulnerable, manipulative and fascinating young women depicted on screen currently. You think you hate her, you think you love her, you don’t know why anyone listens to her, you see the fear in her eyes – she contains multitudes. Some of those multitudes are horrible, but all of them are compelling.

There are other recognisable parallels – an incredibly insular small town that no one seems able to get out of; several bland good-looking guys who serve as love interests for young women far too good for them; parental figures who are equal parts shady and absent; young girls continually wronged by older men; people who closely resemble other people, bizarre characters who pop up out of nowhere to ominously deliver their lines.

The mix of whimsy and hauntingly scary also echoes that of Twin Peaks. Let me remind you again of the scene where Hanna goes to the dentist, only to have A sneak in and plant a tiny message in her tooth. This was surely written with Twin Peaks in mind, specifically the scene where Agent Cooper finds a letter on a piece of paper embedded in Laura Palmer’s fingernail. Right? Connecting the dots between these two shows makes for a richer viewing experience, or at least makes you feel like you hold great knowledge about pop culture provenance.

Evidence #6: A Series of Screencaps Presented Without Context to Show How Excellently Gay This Show is.

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If you read nothing else, this last piece of evidence sums it all up: a verbatim conversation about this show that I recently had with my friend Charlotte.

Me: remember when Spencer was almost beaten up by a horse?

Charlotte: Remember when Emily and Aria got trapped inside that ice cream freezer?

Me: Yeah but remember when Caleb got trapped inside that kiln?

Charlotte: Remember when Spencer got trapped inside her shower and nearly steamed to death?

Me: Remember when A drove into Hanna on purpose and broke her leg?

Charlotte: Remember when Aria got trapped in a box with a dead body and nearly got thrown from a train?

Me: Remember when Emily got trapped in that box that was moving towards a band saw?

Charlotte: Remember when Aria got stapled to the wall inside a sheet of plastic?

Me: Remember when someone pushed all those mannequins into Hanna?

Charlotte: Remember when Emily nearly got cut in half by an elevator shaft?

Me: REMEMBER whe-

Charlotte: REMEMBER WHEN

Me: REBEMBER

Me: lol but remember when the girls got takeout and instead of Chinese food the containers were full of worms?

Charlotte: lol but remember when Aria’s mum got in the car and suddenly it was filled with bees?

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Intrigued? Pretty Little Liars airs TV2 Saturdays at 2pm, or click here to catch up on TVNZ Ondemand