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Notebook: 'Pretty Little Liars' is addicting for all the right reasons

ABC Family

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Senior Arts Editor
Published January 16, 2012

I’ve got a secret. Can you keep it? Last spring, I discovered the ABC Family teen drama “Pretty Little Liars,” and blew through the first season at an embarrassingly rapid pace. I then followed the first half of the second season on a weekly basis, lamented over its several-month-long break and celebrated when it returned earlier this month. My favorite shows can be found on esteemed networks such as AMC and FX, so what am I doing investing so much time in a high school soap based on a young adult book series?

I love “Pretty Little Liars” for a lot of the same reasons I loved “Gossip Girl” in its heyday (a.k.a the first three seasons) — it’s lavish, full of twists and has an ethereally beautiful cast. On top of that, “Pretty Little Liars” is darker than “Gossip Girl” and sometimes downright frightening. I’m actually more afraid of the ubiquitous text-stalker ‘A’ and his/her/their overuse of the word “bitches” than I am of any of the vampires, werewolves and witches that frequent popular teen dramas these days.

The dialogue is often ridiculous (“Why are you talking to me like Ben Franklin?”) and the story can at times be absurd. Why have the Liars still not informed their parents that someone has been stalking them for more than a year? Why do Spencer’s parents serial-abandon her? Why does Toby act like a serial killer 100 percent of the time? Why do the Marins have a fax machine in their kitchen — no one has fax machines anymore! But I’m willing to forgive the ridiculousness and the gaps, because ultimately this show is so deliciously twisty and suspenseful that I can’t help but crave it.

I’m also willing to forgive the more problematic elements of the show, because “Pretty Little Liars” is groundbreaking. Before you call me crazier than Melissa “worst-sister-ever” Hastings, let me explain. “Pretty Little Liars” has handled teen sexuality better than most teen dramas, particularly when compared to other ABC Family shows.

Most notably, it’s the only TV show currently airing that features not one, but two homosexual women of color. Right away, the other Liars are completely supportive of Emily’s relationships with other girls, and the episode when Emily is basically forced out of the closet when confronted by her homophobic mother was heartbreaking and real.

While many shows preach that teen boys are pushy when it comes to sex, the opposite occurs in season one of “Pretty Little Liars” when Hanna becomes frustrated that her religious boyfriend won’t have sex with her. Of course, this arc isn’t free of its problems — the only reason Hanna wants to have sex is because her best friend thinks it’s weird that she hasn’t already, and she also shouldn’t be pressuring her boyfriend if he’s not ready. But just the idea that teen girls are interested in having sex just like teen boys is something television doesn’t often give us. While “Secret Life of the American Teenager” repeatedly insinuates that sex leads to bad things, “Pretty Little Liars” recognizes the sexual aspects of high school in a way that says having sex isn’t necessarily a bad thing and not having sex also isn’t necessarily a bad thing … what a novel concept!

The Liars are all played by stunning 20-somethings who look not a thing like your average high school girl. They somehow always have time to do their hair and apply their lipgloss in between the mystery-solving and trying not to get murdered. These things aren’t realistic, but the way these girls care about each other is true to real-life teen female friendships. They have their drama, but they would never do anything to hurt each other. Even more refreshing is the realistic portrayal of strong platonic girl-guy friendships.

Maybe it’s because I need to know who ‘A’ is. Maybe it’s because I’m still waiting for the musical episode show creator I. Marlene King suggested might be forthcoming. Maybe it’s because I’m secretly envious that my high school life wasn’t nearly as action-packed as the Liars’s — OK, I’m not jealous of the murders, stalking and blackmail but, hey, running around like little detectives, hanging out in graveyards and dressing like designer catalogue models to school every day looks like fun.

Whatever the reason, I’m not going to stop watching “Pretty Little Liars,” even if it means my television street cred has been revoked.


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