Cult Hit 'Pretty Little Liars' Leaves Behind an Accidental Avant-Garde Legacy

Photo: Freeform

This month, Pretty Little Liars concluded its seventh (and final) season, making it the longest-running original series on ABC Family (recently renamed Freeform). It has become a cult classic, a teen obsession, and a fascinating portrait of a show unraveling to the point of surrealism. The series' success is partly due to what the writers got right -- their knack for fascinating portraits of female friendship, their Hitchcock-ian ability to layer subtle terror over a picturesque setting -- but also all the things they did wrong.

Showrunner I. Marlene King initially planned for two seasons, and wrote a clear narrative arc based on that timeframe. When PLL was eventually renewed for three more seasons, King announced that she would solve the central mystery at the end of the fifth season, saying, “If it goes beyond five, I'm screwed.”

As the series progressed, it became clear that King's team was writing itself into a maze with no solution. This didn’t dampen my enthusiasm at all because the failings of the writers created something utterly brilliant. If you imagine all of the inconsistent story-lines as a single, intentional text, it becomes a challenging, post-modern masterpiece. It destabilizes reality with circular plots that cannot exist in linear time. It critiques the arrogance of certainty, and reveals the violent power structures beneath the suburban idyll. Or at least, it can seem that way at 2am, after you’ve watched seven episodes back-to-back.

There is an expectation of a contract between TV shows and viewers; unless a show is explicitly promoted as something avant-garde or absurdist, viewers anticipate a rational narrative, that mysteries will be solved, questions will be answered, and time will flow in a predictable fashion. Hell, even shows that meddle with time-travel create rules.

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Early experimental filmmakers were the first to thwart those expectations. After viewing the seminal surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, filmmaker and critic Ado Kyrou said, "For the first time in the history of the cinema, a director tries not to please but rather to alienate nearly all potential spectators."

Early surrealist films questioned the logic of cause and effect. They toyed with the viewer’s expectations of a narrative, offering instead unconnected, inexplicable scenes unfolding in random order. In Un Chien Andalou, a man pulls pianos weighted with dead donkeys towards a woman. Ants crawl on a hand. A book is transformed into a gun. The film is punctuated with random declarations of time, like “Sixteen years ago” and “Around three in the morning.”

Time was just as strange and unpredictable on PLLThe show starts with the characters in 11th grade, with the first two seasons each spanning a couple of months. At the beginning of Season 3, they enter their senior year. Then, there are 49 episodes, spread out over three seasons, which all seem to take place in November of their senior year, even though the show treats events as if they are occurring over weeks and months. For example, one character joins a police academy and then graduates. None of this is ever explicitly acknowledged; all of it is pieced together by fans desperate to make rational sense of a show that has increasingly abandoned the boundaries of rationality.

PLL focuses on a four girls, nicknamed the “Liars,” who were friends with Allison, a queen bee mean girl who went missing. A year later, after her body is found, the girls begin receiving anonymous text messages threatening to reveal secrets that only Allison would know. The texts are signed “A.” What follows is a twisting path of blackmail, surveillance, and misdirection. 

As the PLL writers built this mystery, they created a rich tapestry of symbols. I. Marlene King, who has over 800,000 Twitter followers, many of them PLL fans, tweeted clues from the set that would point to A’s identity: vintage movie posters, certain songs, a black swan costume. An entire community of devoted fans made a library of videos, mining every episode for visual clues, and editing them together to illustrate their theories. No detail was too small: the title of a book on a character’s nightstand, the way the character is framed in a mirror, handwriting analysis, wardrobe motifs.

But in the most recent seasons, it became clear that most of the symbols were completely meaningless, and that some of Kings’s tweets to fans were outright lies. Fans were furious. There was so much public backlash that I. Marlene King made a video promising answers, and tweeted the following:

For me, all of this brought to mind the purposeful irrationality of surrealist film and the writings of Luis Buñuel about his collaborations with Salvador Dalí: “Nothing, in the film, symbolizes anything. The only method of investigation of the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis."

As is fitting for psychoanalysis, my most profound interaction with PLL came in a dream. At the end of the second season, a girl at the Liars' high school is unmasked as A. But since it was renewed, another A picked up where the first left off, continuing to torment the Liars and raising the stakes. In Season 6, yet another A is unmasked. Then she is killed, and a new A immediately takes her place. It makes no sense. Why would these girls constantly be faced with shadowy, almost omniscient tormentors, one after another? One night, after bingeing episodes, I dreamt that the Liars were all living in a computer simulation, and A wasn’t a person at all -- A was a virus.

I’m not saying that this is the interpretation intended by the writers. But when I woke up, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much PLL resembled the real world. Much of the violence in our world is structural. Police brutality doesn’t occur because “bad apple” police officers all happen to coincidentally kill unarmed black people. Police brutality against people of color is a symptom, and the virus is racism. Violence in PLL is not dependent on one independent actor. When one A dies, another takes her place. A is the virus. The individual A's are just the symptom. On Pretty Little Liars, as in our world, violence is systemic.

Over the seasons, as the Liars try to discover one A identity after another, the show has become famous for its red herrings. The girls follow logical leads, leading them to suspect various characters, but, while they uncover secrets about their town and learn some A identities, their central mysteries remain. In an era where many shows are defined by the success of the main character, there is something fascinating and subversive about a show where the characters never have the answers.

While many procedurals cater to a post-truth environment where Sherlock Holmes knockoffs are always rightPretty Little Liars is the exact opposite. We watch as these intelligent girls follow all of the leads only to see the answers evaporate again and again. It begins to feel like a post-modern critique of certainty -- a reminder of how difficult it is to ever see the whole picture. Instead of being in a reality set up to ensure that they are always right, the Liars' reality demands that they question everything. Certainty is off the table, and all possibilities must be considered. 

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In the show's final season, the writers attempted to supply answers once and for all. But there was no way to adequately resolve all of the loose ends, and that's okay. After seven years, I’ve come to love the uncertainty. There are plenty of shows that have answers. What I love most about Pretty Little Liars are the questions.

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