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.