Pretty Little Liars premiered on ABC Family during the summer of 2010, and I tuned in exclusively because that was the first and only time I’d ever had a TV in my bedroom, so no program was spared my undiscerning eye. A couple friends also watched, and we’d have self-loathing conversations about how the first 50 minutes of each episode were packed with eye-rolling drivel, but the final ten minutes were so terrifying they would inevitably convince us to wait with bated breath for next week. Over the years, though, not only have the acting and writing improved drastically, but the plot has grown from one winding branch into a twisted thicket of mystery — one that won’t release us anytime soon.
The show, which some early critics aptly called “Twin Peaks Lite,” follows four high school girls — Aria Montgomery (Lucy Hale), Spencer Hastings (Troian Bellisario), Hanna Marin (Ashley Benson), and Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell) — as they try to figure out who murdered their friend and former ringleader, Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse). As they gather clues for the case, they are also being harassed by a mysterious figure called “A” who knows things about the case and the girls that no one else does, threatens to reveal their darkest secrets, and often follows through.
Pretty Little Liars nestled itself in a familiar crime noir tradition, preceded by Twin Peaks, The Killing, and even Veronica Mars, in which a small community is left reeling after the unsolved murder of a seemingly perfect, innocent girl, and the rest of the season (or series) centers around solving it. The latter three shows, though, have even more in common: they didn’t last beyond two or three seasons, and (with the exception of Veronica Mars) each suffered rapid burnout before its demise.
Phil Dyess-Nugent at A.V. Club describes the problem thusly: “[The Killing] gradually wore out its welcome with many viewers … the same way Twin Peaks did: By seeming to stretch a single murder-mystery plot beyond its natural limits.” Without the driving force of the initial murders, neither show could keep up its original momentum, leading to an inevitable letdown when new crimes were introduced.
So how has Pretty Little Liars, surely a less heady, Easter egg-laden show than the other two, managed to make it through Season 4 (with a confirmed Season 5), all while stretching its own “single murder-mystery plot” years beyond its natural limits?
Quite simply, it’s because the show has two intersecting plots: to find out who killed Alison and also to find out “A’s” identity. And over the past five seasons, the “A” question has mutated and splintered into so many fragments that we’ve become too busy piecing them together to worry about exactly who murdered Ali. Initially, it seemed that finding “A” would inevitably mean finding Ali’s killer. But at the end of Season 2, just as it’s finally revealed that Hanna’s friend Mona Vanderwaal (Janel Parrish) is “A,” we simultaneously learn that “A” is actually a team of people — all of whom have their own motivations for the murder — working under some “über-A” none of them have met. Ali, like Laura Palmer and Rosie Larsen before her, was a master of deception who led many different lives, leaving an abundance of secrets untold in her wake.
Then, in Season 4, the story explodes: as it turns out, Ali is still alive. Now we’re left standing on our heads, wondering whose body the coroner carried away and who Ali’s been hiding from for years. These questions are added to the lingering mystery of “A,” who continues to torment the girls and murder minor characters who know too much (there’s another thing — for airing on a family network, the show isn’t shy about killing people off).
“A’s” identity is still the ultimate dangling carrot, one that’s frustratingly been just out of reach for four years. But Pretty Little Liars has perfected the art of leaving even bigger holes in the wake of each bombshell. Just as it is revealed that Ali is alive, we also learn that one of the show’s foundational relationships — the romance between Aria and her English teacher Ezra Fitz (Ian Harding), which seemed to exist outside of the case — was simply a means for Fitz to do research for his true-crime book on the murder of Ali (who, by the way, he briefly dated). Is this even true, we wonder? Might Ezra be on the “A” team? Did he have a reason to kill Ali? Each question that arises becomes another reason to keep watching, week after week.
In addition to “crime noir lite,” the show quite obviously exists within another genre: the teen drama. And it’s on this set of familiar tropes — popular girl falls for bad boy, precocious high schooler dates teacher, Dad has an affair — that Pretty Little Liars can rely when it needs to let the mystery simmer untouched for a bit, buying itself more time before the next necessary reveal, and giving us something else to fret over (will Hanna and Caleb get back together?) outside of the overarching plot. By padding episodes with fluffy teen soap plots, the Ali/”A” question can be dragged out longer, broken up into smaller bits to be dispersed throughout.
Thus, the apparent lightness of the show, which may have prevented people from taking it seriously at first, has actually helped it stay afloat — giving viewers plenty of reasons to return while keeping us firmly in the dark.