Like many a successful teen drama, “Pretty Little Liars” is prime reboot material. Countless remakes have recently tried to bank on the popularity of their predecessors: “Gossip Girl,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Charmed,” to name a few. With revivals, a period of time is often taken between the original show’s run and any renewed endeavors; viewers need time to regenerate interest, forgive and forget past grievances (the way it ended, a major character death, etc.) and be assuaged by the nostalgic pull of a piece of art firmly encased in the past. Five years after the original “PLL” series finished airing, its most recent reboot, “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin,” has fully diverged into new ground with a fresh cast of characters to terrorize and a new creepy dark town to boot.
Set in the fictional town of Millwood, “Original Sin” follows five teenage girls, Imogen (Bailee Madison, “Bridge to Terabithia”), Tabby (Chandler Kinney, “Zombies 2”), Noa (Maia Reficco, “Kally’s Mashup”), Faran (Zaria Simone, “Two Distant Strangers”) and Mouse (Malia Pyles, “Baskets”), who are being blackmailed and stalked by a mysterious figure known as A. As the girls try to investigate the identity of A, they begin to piece together clues from a tragic incident involving their mothers and the suicide of a teenage girl from over two decades ago.
In all fairness, this isn’t exactly “PLL”’s first reboot rodeo. The “Pretty Little Liars” franchise has notably pulled some rather rushed spin-off endeavors that resulted in relative flops, even in the midst of the original show’s hype and devoted fanbase. During its initial run, a spin-off series titled “Ravenswood” was attempted, only to get the boot one season in due to low ratings. Less than two years after “PLL” ended, they gave it another go with “Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists,” which, you guessed it, also got canceled after a single season.
There’s still some faith to be had, however, in the originality of the slasher mystery that is “Original Sin.” While remaining, in essence, a “PLL”-themed story to its core, the show has made some clear choices to distance itself from the original enough to stand on its own two feet.
Unlike the original “Pretty Little Liars,” the main Liars aren’t friends prior to the start of the show. They meet in detention, “Breakfast Club” style, and quickly band together over a mutual hatred of stereotypical blonde, evil it-girl Karen (Mallory Bechtel, “Hereditary”). As with any ensemble show, it relies heavily on strong performances from the entire group, which this cast readily gives. Faran’s calm, cool, collected nature makes her the most level-headed of the group and the best for withering confrontational comebacks. Tabby is faulted only by her lack of a personality. Her dialogue in the first few episodes consists solely of regurgitated movie quotes, which feels like a cheap cop-out for giving her any actual character traits besides self-proclaimed cinephile. No really, her lines sound like they were generated by an AI that’s been singularly exposed to Film Twitter. Imogen is evidently the star of the show and a proper scream queen through and through. Madison’s powerhouse of a performance truly grounds Imogen’s empathetic nature and the emotional turmoil of her character arc, making every horrifically thrilling scene of hers all the more deliciously fun to watch.
Although the series takes place within the existing chronology of the original, the new setting and cast breathe much-needed life into the A storyline, suited for a whole new generation of viewers in addition to its well-established fanbase. It’s not that “Original Sin” is entirely lacking in fanservice, with no shortage of paralleled scenes and subtle references to the original, but as more of a slasher horror than a mystery thriller, it exudes a far different atmosphere than its predecessor. For instance, in “PLL,” A was frequently shown in end-of-the-episode snippets, munching popcorn while watching footage of the girls, donning leather gloves and an iconic black hoodie that I can only assume was purchased from Aéropostale. Yet in “Original Sin,” A is given a whole new spin, as our resident monogrammed assailant resembles more of a middle-aged serial killer than a vengeful teenage girl, true to form with a menacing leather face mask and a truly atrocious fashion misdemeanor in the form of a Michael-Myers-esque jumpsuit that none of the original Liars would’ve been caught dead in. While it does take some of the inventive mystery out of the enigmatic A persona, the show makes up for it with a tightly wound and carefully crafted story that gradually unravels along a trail of trauma-filled secrets and red herrings at every turn.
It’d be easy to pawn off the vibe differences between the two shows as “PLL” being a product of its time (although that intro sequence certainly is) and “Original Sin” as a modern update, but it’s more than that. This reboot maintains a refreshingly keen self-awareness of its place in the horror-slasher genre, divulging into noticeably darker themes of sexual assault and suicide with a level of severity and depth that the original show seemed incapable of, or at least wholly uninterested in. It places a heavy emphasis on subverting sexist, tired film tropes in respect to the female gaze with its blatant, on-the-nose homages to classic horror, like Tabby’s gender-swapped remake of the “Psycho” shower scene or the tragic role reversal of Karen’s “Carrie” prom scene.
In retrospect, the original “Pretty Little Liars” sustained quite a bit of chaos without buckling under the weight of its absurdist plots; it often seemed more focused on taking big risks for the potential payoff in shock-value than on the plot holes they littered along the way. For better or worse, the show was anything but predictable, with its increasingly inventive and outrageous plots that kept viewers puzzled and hooked season after season. Yet after the original show’s fairly controversial ending, you can’t really blame “Original Sin” for playing it safe and neatly wrapping up the story in a rather anticlimactic end reveal that leaves the door cracked open just a smidge for a potential season two.
Perhaps “Original Sin” is merely the latest in a string of failed attempts to recapture the magic of a wildly popular teen show. As it has yet to receive the greenlight for season two, only time will tell. But the thing that “PLL” finally got right with this reboot is simply that it’s not trying to be the original. You can’t outdo the doer, after all. Instead, it chooses to wrap a smart, sharply composed story within the fabric of a mystery and a villain we already know and love. So whether you’re a die-hard “PLL” truther or you only know the show because of those inescapable ABC Family commercials, “Original Sin” is a reboot done right and a frightfully good time.
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at email@example.com.