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With ‘Pretty Little Liars,’ TV Found a Smarter Way to Reach Young Viewers
June 29, 2017  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

You may not have noticed that one of the biggest success stories over the last seven years of television finished its run Tuesday night.

Pretty Little Liars aired its 160th and final episode on Freeform, wrapping up its core mystery and a wide array of subplots and minidramas.

PLL never drew Walking Dead numbers. After holding steady for years around 2.5 million live viewers an episode, it dropped in the final season to a little more than half that.

Those numbers are deceptive, though, because many of the show’s viewers don’t watch TV on TV. They watch it on their computers or their iPads or their phones.

Pretty Little Liars attracted and held a loyal, sizable and passionate fan base, mostly under-20 women and girls, with a soap that revolved around a couple of murder mysteries, but really was more about female friendship.

It didn’t break new dramatic ground. Rather, it executed the basics laid down by shows from Golden Girls to Melrose Place and Sex and the City.

No matter how extreme the drama gets – and there’s nothing more relatable to teens than drama of all shapes and sizes – we love to see characters for whom we are rooting find ways to survive those storms together.

Our five Liars were Spencer Hastings (Troian Bellisario), Aria Montgomery (Lucy Hale), Hanna Marin (Ashley Benson), Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell) and Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse).

They were brought together at the beginning by the disappearance of Alison, who they feared had been murdered when menacing notes started appearing from a mysterious “A” who seemed to know a disturbing number of secrets about their lives.

The Liars weren’t close as our story began, thanks to Alison’s disappearance. One of the subtle pleasures of PLL over the years was watching their bonds develop, sometimes cautiously yet with a reassuring strength.

As Bob Dylan once wrote, “Strange how people who have suffered together have stronger connections than people who are most content.”

Pretty Little Liars gave us a core group who stayed together for years, long enough for us to see many of their flaws and decide that only made them human.

We really wanted them to discover what happened with Alison and later with another apparent murder victim, particularly since at various times that mysterious outside force seemed determined to kill all of them.

When they weren’t scrambling for their lives, they found time to develop careers and romances – things that in real life can break friends apart, but which here seemed to bring them closer.

While they all had fragments of biological families, fear and tension helped mold them here into a whole new family of their own.  

Few TV fantasies are more satisfying than that one, and no matter how soapy or far-fetched it became, Pretty Little Liars wisely never lost sight of that end goal.

Tuesday’s final episode earned the right to a bit of self-indulgence, including a wonderfully stylized opening fantasy scene where the five Liars are seated at an outdoor café at night on a city street that has no other people. As they talk, snowflakes begin to fall.

It’s a scene straight from a Disney fairyland, and the fact it could coexist in harmony with long passages of tension and the gradual reveal of a killer underscores the soap-rooted storytelling skill of show developer I. Marlene King.

In the larger TV picture, Pretty Little Liars proved its audience was a prize that could be captured. It proved that the classic soap concept of the perpetual tease outlived the original soaps.

It proved tween and teen girls didn’t need vampires to get hooked on a tale mixing danger and romance, and it showed how such a story, with the right characters, could become the catalyst for a social media community.

In an age when television has increasingly aimed to identify and serve specific niches of its audience, particularly its young audience, Pretty Little Liars was a case study in how to do it.  

Dissect its literary merits as you will, Pretty Little Liars was a 21st-century American bedtime story.

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Bob Lamm
Beware: there's a spoiler ahead about one aspect of the PRETTY LITTLE LIARS finale. It is disturbing that this article, like so many written about this series, doesn't address the way it glorified the sexual relationship between a high school student and her teacher. (Ending in their marriage in the series finale.) In many states, this relationship would have constituted statutory rape. Legalities aside, all over the U.S. many teenage girls enter into sexual relationships with their teachers, some of them serious predators. A small proportion of these relationships may lead to marriage and genuinely happy lives, but surely most are damaging if not disastrous for the girls. For a series aimed at tween and teen girls to legitimize and romanticize such relationships is sickening. Television critics shouldn't look the other way when this is happening.
Jul 1, 2017   |  Reply
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