Monday, June 23, 2014

The A-ppeal of 'Pretty Little Liars'

I’m always fascinated with the success of certain television series. For instance, why did Glee blow up and become the phenomenon that it did? Why was Community – an arguably great show in its youth – a series that was consistently low-rated and overlooked? I’d like to believe that there is some sort of formula or science that is directly related to the success or failure of a television series. But the truth is that there is not. A well-written and hilarious show (like Enlisted) can end up on the chopping block, yet the same reality series can be on for twenty years or more. So what, dear readers, is the appeal of Pretty Little Liars? It’s an ABC Family drama and one that is intensely captivating, even if you’re not a teenager. What makes this show such a phenomenon and why do flocks of people from all across the world gravitate toward Spencer, Aria, Hanna, and Emily? As someone who has recently completed her marathon of the entire series, under the direct orders of my 19-year old sister, I decided to try to pinpoint exactly what it is about this show that makes it such a hit.

So if you’re ready, let’s journey to the fictional town of Rosewood, Pennsylvania and see what, exactly, makes Pretty Little Liars appointment-viewing television.

The completely nuanced four main characters.

Viewers are addicted to Pretty Little Liars in part because you can relate to one of the four main characters. Each girl is so emotionally and physically nuanced that it’s difficult NOT to find one of the girls to relate to. Spencer is competitive, driven, type-A, and extremely intelligent. (I relate to Spencer, in case you all had to guess.) Hanna is not the brightest tool in the shed all the time, but she is witty and sassy and extremely loyal to her family and friends. That’s what makes her such a wonderful character. Aria may be short in stature, but she has a compassionate heart – she’s an artist and a romantic. Emily, meanwhile, is kind of the wildcard. She’s unpredictable and tough; moreover, Emily is the kind of person who would fight valiantly for you if you needed it. I think that Pretty Little Liars continues to succeed as a show because all of these young women are different; they have some similar qualities (Hanna and Spencer are both quite stubborn; Emily and Aria are more hesitant and emotional, etc.), but their voices are so distinct. That is what is truly important in a television show, to be honest: all of the characters must have unique voices but they must manage to complement the others and also have the ability to clash when necessary.

Everything about the chemistry between Spencer, Hanna, Aria, and Emily (and now the re-inclusion of Alison) feels organic. These feel like real people with real emotional baggage, different coping mechanisms, and volatility. Those distinct personalities not only make the characters on Pretty Little Liars distinct, but also provide us with the ability to relate to them.

No matter how insane the plot gets, it always manages to pull you back in.

Pretty Little Liars is the kind of show that sometimes becomes too convoluted and absurd that you cannot help but watch because of morbid curiosity. The plots thicken, often times to the bewilderment of the audience, but I think that’s part of the appeal of the show. No matter how absurd a storyline becomes, there’s something about the series that hooks you and draws you back in. Whether it’s solving Alison’s murder, trying to unmask A, wondering whether or not EZRA is A, or discovering secret after secret, the show manages to pull the strings and pull them tightly so that you’re just compelled to watch the season and the one after that. This is partially due to the characters themselves and the actors portraying them. And while the convoluted nature of this show can sometimes become a drawback, it’s also one of the most appealing elements about it. Pretty Little Liars is a series where anything can happen and you never know what is coming around the next corner. Doesn’t that pique your interest?

The actors genuinely care about their characters and it shows in the way they portray them.

You know how, when a show gets campy and goes off the rails, you can tell because the actors seem to have dimmed eyes and vacant expressions? Their portrayal of their character is diluted and they seem not to care, quite frankly, about that character anymore. No matter what the Pretty Little Liars team throws the four main actresses, these ladies commit wholeheartedly. And I admire them, quite frankly, especially Troian Bellisario whose alter ego Spencer Hastings has been put through the wringer, and yet Troian has always fully committed to her portrayal of the overachieving Liar. You can tell that the actress doesn’t just care about Spencer but that she feels connected to and – in some ways, likely – inseparable from her. Therefore, no matter what is written in the script, Troian commits. It’s not just because Troian is an excellent actress (she is), but because she is so intimately in tune with her character and loves that alter ego so much that she cannot help but pour of all of herself into all of Spencer. So whether Spencer is in Radley (probably the finest bit of acting I’ve ever seen on a teenage drama, to be honest), struggling with an addiction to Adderall, or falling in love, Troian lets us know, as an audience, that she cares about Spencer immensely. And when she cares about her character, so do we.

The same holds true for the other three main actresses and their respective Liars. You can tell that these young women not only understand but also care about the characters they’re portraying. They don’t act half-heartedly, no matter if their scene is the most absurd scene ever written or the most profound. Lucy Hale recently had the opportunity to do some great dramatic work with Aria; Ashley Benson has had some terrific emotionally nuanced work with Hanna, especially in regards to her relationships with her mother and Caleb; and Shay Mitchell has always had a sort of quiet intensity as Emily Fields – she often keeps her emotions bottled and subdued, but when she does display emotion, it’s intense.

The actresses on this show deeply care about their beautifully flawed characters and it SHOWS. They put everything that they have into portraying them and it’s clear that they don’t plan to stop that any time soon.

The inclusion of family.

Although the inclusion of family has dwindled slightly over the past season or two, I’ve found it to be beneficial to this series as a whole. The first two seasons really introduced us not just to the four main characters but also their respective families. It was incredibly beneficial to be able to understand who these characters were through who their parents and siblings were. We saw why Spencer has such an intense drive to win through meeting her sister Melissa and parents; we understood Aria’s emotional vulnerability when we met her parents, one of whom cheated on the other; we got to see how protective Hanna and her mom were of each other and why Hanna’s family shaped her into the person she was; and we met Emily’s parents right at the cusp of her decision to come out to them as gay. The familial nature of this show, not just with the faux family that the Liars created but with literal families, has always been an element I find to be endearing about this series.

The stories of the Hastings, Marin, Montgomery, and Fields clans are just not as important to the series as the stories of the four Liars, but that doesn’t mean they’re not influential. The story of Ashley Marin being incarcerated allowed us to see a more vulnerable side of Hanna and also an extremely optimistic one – she believed her mother would be freed. The story of Byron’s infidelity was integral to understanding Aria’s fractured relationship with him, her dependence on her mother, and also Mike Montgomery’s struggles. Every arc Spencer has with her family reveals her fractured and emotionally complex relationship with them; it illuminates the reason why she is often controlling and dependent on winning. And Emily’s familial relationship was so important too, in understanding her character: she’s reserved and retreats inwardly often in order to deal with her problems. She hid her true self from her parents for years in order to keep the status quo within the house. These young women are who they are because of their families and the stories where they get the chance to interact with their parents and siblings are evidence of that.

The show, no matter how dramatic it gets, never takes itself too seriously.

I love when Pretty Little Liars gets a chance to add some levity to otherwise serious moments and situations. Little things (like Spencer correcting Hanna’s botched phrasing, one of the girls making a horrible pun, or Emily asking if they could possibly leap to another building, earning a resounding chorus of horrified “NO” from the other girls) make this show amusing. The wit and the sass are strong with characters like Spencer and Hanna. They have impeccable comedic timing and I love the fact that this show is primarily a very serious, mystery-driven one but it’s also a story of four teenaged girls. And the show reminds us of that when they get the chance to verbally spar with enemies or laugh about inside jokes and reference pop culture.

I love moments where Aria gets to be snappy and Hanna gets to sass someone (or say something completely absurd like “the A-ness of things”), or when Emily just gives someone a sass-filled look, and especially when Spencer gets to user her quick-witted sardonic tone with a family member or friend. The show reminds us in its more lighthearted moments that even though the girls are dealing with serious circumstances, they’re still teenagers, which means they still love to joke around and goof off as much at every opportunity they can.

You can trust no one and are suspicious of everyone.

The characters on Pretty Little Liars are like… well, they’re like looking into a carnival mirror. What you see in regards to a character is not always the truth. And when you think you finally have a character’s motives or personality discerned, the show jolts you and you find yourself looking into the mirror, their distorted figure looking back at you. Everything is not what it seems in Rosewood and when you feel like you finally have everyone figured out, you can bet that you do not have anyone figured out. I once told my sister that the tag line for PLL should be: “Trust no one. Literally… no one.” Though you can usually trust the four little Liars, even THEY have acted shady and suspicious in the past. Whenever a new character is introduced onto the series, you can bet with about 99% certainty that they are integral to the plot somehow. You won’t know HOW, but you’ll know that they ARE.

That’s how Pretty Little Liars operates, to be frank, and it’s what keeps audiences coming back season after season: you don’t know who to trust or if you can trust anyone. It’s a giant mystery wrapped in a crime show, blanketed by a comedy and teen soap opera. The show is like a rubber band ball, to be honest, in that it weaves characters and stories together you didn’t know were possible. So trust no one in Rosewood, dear readers, because everyone has an agenda.

And you know what? That’s part of the fun.

Every male (and female, for that matter) in Rosewood is attractive.

The appeal of Pretty Little Liars is also fixated on some more… well, superficial things, like how freaking attractive everyone is within Rosewood. Seriously, is there a modeling agency within the town or something? This show is full of pretty people doing good, bad, and sometimes ugly things. But part of the appeal is that everyone is so (pardon this horrible pun) APPEALING. All of the main Liars are gorgeous. Seriously, the leading ladies of this show are beautiful, each in their own distinctive ways. And with pretty women come pretty men, too. I’ll just rattle off the list of attractive men, shall I? Ezra, Toby, Caleb, Jason, Noel, Wren, Ian, Gabe, etc. The show isn’t just about intrigue but also eye candy. Now, the series’ emphasis is not placed on how attractive or unattractive characters are; this is a show that is, first and foremost, about secrets and lies and the mystery involved therewith, but let’s be honest: it doesn’t hurt that Pretty Little Liars features a cast of extremely pretty people.

What’s great though about the show is the message that some of the prettiest people (and they focused a lot on this in regards to Alison’s character) have some of the ugliest secrets.

The romantic relationships provide drama and occasional substance.

Since PLL is an ABC Family original series, it’s obviously tangled with forbidden romances, love triangles, and secret trysts. There are major pairings (Ezra/Aria, Toby/Spencer, Caleb/Hanna, Emily/Paige) and minor pairings (Ella/Zack, Garrett/Jenna) and quite frankly odd pairings (Mona/Mike, anyone?) that weave their way into the stories of this show. Some romantic pairings are important and some I am a fan of (some I am not), but regardless of my feelings toward couples, the truth is that romance draws people into a series. Well-written romance stories with actual substance help to anchor sitcoms. I’ve said this before multiple times, but it bears repeating: if you leave out romance in a television series, you lose something fundamentally human about your story. Whether it’s unrequited love, brotherly love, or romantic love, the truth is that love is a universal feeling. And the reason that there are “shippers” is because romance strikes a chord within each of our hearts. It makes us connect with characters on a deeper, more personal level. If a series did not have romance, we would probably still connect with characters, but that connection would be frayed slightly and incomplete.

So Pretty Little Liars – a show that walks the boundaries of numerous genres – often dips its toes into the “teenage soap opera” waters by providing us with forbidden love and lust and secrets and betrayals and heartache. Does it portray romance well all of the time? Well, no. I’d argue that no series does, of course, and primarily the reason I do not ship certain pairings isn’t because of the actors’ portrayals but the writing on a series. But the reason so many people keep coming back to the show is that they want some assurance that their favorite character or favorite pairing will be happy. We all yearn for that, don’t we? We all want to know that the characters we love on television will find love and find happiness. What PLL does well when it tackles romance is allow us to remember that love isn’t easy. Nothing comes easy for the Liars on this show – they break up and make up and remind us that though there is happiness in this world and joy in relationships and love, that doesn’t mean that they will last forever.

The villains are never as black-and-white as they may seem.

I like villains who are complex. I like when characters have motives and you want to root for them, but you also kind of hate them in the process. I really like characters like Mona Vanderwaal because she is utterly brilliant and conniving and also because she’s vulnerable and scared. Characterizing a character as strictly a villain and nothing more is rather boring. It’s far more interesting to see a character appear on your screen, feel a sense of hatred for them, but also a twinge of compassion or understanding. You see, what PLL does is this: it presents us with flawed individuals – people who are broken because of their circumstances or other people – and allows them to make a choice: they can either let those experiences shape them into heroes or villains. What’s so appealing about this series, however, is that there are no true heroes or villains when you truly think about it. The four Liars could be characterized as “heroes” simply because they are trying to stop A. And A, of course, is the easy-to-pin “villain” of the series. But… at some point, don’t the four girls also become villains? They break and destroy each other, lie to their families, and cause destruction. Though their intents are not always evil, they’re not always GOOD either. That’s what intrigues me so much about this show, I think. PLL is literally a sea of morally ambiguous characters who are trying to stop slightly more villainous individuals from harming either them or the people that they love. And that’s kind of brilliant if you really think about it. We all want to be the heroes of our own stories and I think that Spencer, Aria, Emily, and Hanna all want that for themselves, too. But the choices they make often steer them toward villainy (or at least into moral ambiguity) than anything else.

Complex characters are wonderful, and complex villains are downright delightful. If everyone in Rosewood has an agenda and everyone is not what they seem, then the lies that these characters tell could be either their way to redemption or their fall from grace. It’s their choice to make and I think it’s immensely appealing that any single character on the show is one decision away from that destiny.

It always manages to keep you on your toes.

“Don’t blink.” That’s the advice that The Doctor gave to Sally Sparrow during an episode of Doctor Who, but it’s also one that I would give to anyone while watching an episode of Pretty Little Liars. My sister berates me, when we get to watch episodes together, for having my phone out and either texting or tweeting. And I can see why she does this: little things happen on PLL that amount to bigger things. If you blink, you could miss an important clue or scene that will come back around in later episodes. This is a show that garners most of its appeal on the fact that you are always on your toes while watching an episode. It’s a series that prides itself on putting ten pieces together and then scattering twenty more into the wind. And while that’s often maddeningly frustrating because you wait seasons upon seasons for answers to hanging questions, it’s also part of why the show has a core audience. PLL keeps people on their toes and I think that most of us enjoy shows that do that. We like to feel like sleuths; we like making deductions and placing bets on which characters have motives and agendas. Most of all, we like to speculate who A is, and the fact that the show still hasn’t answered that question means that the writers know their audience is still on the hook.

Why is Pretty Little Liars so A-ppealing? Well, if you don’t know by now, I’m not certain I can help you. If any of this intrigues you and you’re interested in a good binge-watch, all four seasons of PLL are on Netflix now. And you can watch the current season on ABC Family Tuesday nights at 8 PM. Until next time, folks.


1 comment:

  1. This is exactly the post I was looking for! I needed someone to analyze exactly why this show is so alluring. Thank you for putting my thoughts into words.