When people ask me what I'm watching lately, I run through all the things you'd expect: the latest prestige drama, a critically-acclaimed comedy and I'm obviously rewatching every episode of Golden Girls. I cap it off, though, with my usual winking, "And, of course, Pretty Little Liars." I didn't realize so many people were capable of such intense side-eyes. Maybe a couple would sincerely ask me, "Should I be watching that?" I always have the same reply:
"I can't in good conscience recommend Pretty Little Liars to you. But if you end up watching it, we'll have a lot to talk about."
I started watching live in Season 1B after binging 1A on the recommendation of a friend who said I'd like it because of my undying love for early WB dramas. This turned out to be a lie, but I was already hooked by the time I figured it out. There was something about A's omniscient presence that always haunted me and these characters suffering under the thumb of this hoodie-wearing sociopath felt familiar. Not because I've ever been stalked by a creative, doll-obsessed assassin. No one in my friend circle has the time or resources for those kinds of shenanigans.
PLL had my attention even while I struggled to explain to myself why I was watching this show in the age of Breaking Bad, Mad Men and all these dramatic powerhouses competing for G.O.A.T. status. By all accounts, it was soapy, hyperbolic in its tension, and directed toward teen girls which, as a straight man going on thirty, I was decidedly not. At first I thought it was the train wreck of the thing. Like I knew it was bad, but I couldn't look away. But that was me kidding myself. Because, ultimately, Pretty Little Liars isn't bad at all.
Sure, the show goes to ridiculous places and some of the plotlines either peter out or end in impossible to swallow ways. Sometimes the dialogue feels like absurdist plays inspired by a manic high-schooler's fever dream. And you have to ignore the premise of how A and A.D. rose to power because trying to apply real world logistics to it will break your spirit (just getting enough people to help build bunkers and dollhouses and also sign NDAs alone is mind-boggling). This, after all, is a show that basically ended its series on the cartoony "No, I'm the real one! She's the imposter" twin game.
But you could never call the show crummy. What was important about the show wasn't in the specifics of its storytelling but in what it was able to achieve. It looked great all the time. The characters became paragons — multi-dimensional beings that represented so much to so many different people at once. They are people whose flaws were also strengths in tangibility.
Most important to me, I feel this show more than I watch it. PLL weaved a tale that invited allegory and metaphor because the levels of anxiety in Rosewood were relatable. Women suffer threats coming from all over in a patriarchal society and so many have to ignore them because the boogeymen are too monolithic to attempt to break apart. Imagine not only identifying your boogeyman, but spending your life tracking the boogeyman down to eliminate it.
At least that's my (often unpopular or popularly unshared) take. The anxiety of all the characters as they suffered under the pressure of A, this idea that the world was out to get them and their enemies were invisible, feels right at home in my perpetually-spinning mind where my head's on a near-constant swivel, both literally and figuratively, searching for new threats. Our world has come to peddle anxieties, particularly those coming from dark corners and even, seemingly, from the ether. They descend from our real-life monoliths (the Government, the Left/Right, the Media, the Twitter) and seek to scare us into a near frenzy. Frenzy seemed to be Charlotte (Vanessa Ray) and Alex's (Troian Bellisario) plan all along. It's the game. And it feels like we're pawns in not only their game (as audience members) but also in some real-life version of a bigger game. Please don't post your conspiracy theories in the comments. I don't have room for anymore.
Although it was easy for me to identify with them in that one regard, I also felt ill-equipped to discuss some of the representational or cultural issues the show raised from time to time, which would include everything from race to sexual fluidity to transgender issues. It was more fun for me to keep reviews of PLL light and story-based rather than zooming out too far to get into the meta qualities of the show. And because pointing out Ezra's (Ian Harding) baby tantrums and ethically-dubious relationship with a former student was a highlight for me. I would relish the opportunity to find a new way to call out how Ezra likes little girls.
I watched Pretty Little Liars grow up. I liked to tease the show, even if it sometimes went overboard (my description of Emison as stinky toejam might have been a little much) but the show was also prone to dump itself into the sea. We were both ready to raise the stakes. I loved seeing episodes where the Liars had to deal with the fallout of what was happening to them, how PTSD and the effects of life-shattering paranoia affected what they did as teens and then young adults. We watched characters develop from bullied girls to anxiety machines who churned threats into trouble and almost didn't feel good about life unless they were trying to find out who A was.
There's no growth in a soap opera, which is why calling this show one is a misnomer and a crime even I often commit. It can be silly, but it's also dark and serious, gory and shocking. It rode this line between genres where it was melodramatic but also full of horror tropes with just a dash of voyeurism. It was magical realism in its Ravenswood influence (Grunwald, technically, is still canon since she was responsible for pulling Ali out of that grave) and because of how much A/A.D./Uber A had to put in to create this world of anxiety for everyone in Rosewood (it can only be explained by eliding logistics through magic). And it was dynamic because of its fandom.
I've never been a fan of a television show, especially not since I started writing about them. I've always insisted that I root for the better story like a sports writer who has no bias toward any team. But Pretty Little Liars, for all its flaws and all its wonder, might've had the fandom I was most intrigued by. While Ezria and Emison 'shippers confused me, I loved how people poured their theories onto the internet for who was involved in the syndicate to torture the Liars. And I loved how the final season was made just for them. Even down to the end where the longest-running theory (the Twin theory) turned out to be the end game. All the most popular 'ships ended up together in the end. Aria (Lucy Hale) even made her way to the A team for a bit. As much as a show wants to stick a landing for its legacy, Pretty Little Liars seemed more interested in sticking the landing for its fans, which is admirable and really demonstrates where this show's priorities were. They knew who was keeping them all employed. And I've never seen a show so connected to its fanbase.
As the show drew to a close, it felt bittersweet. Part of me was ready for the series to be over. The time jump had jolted the show back to life but it could only go so far before the Liars would all have to be A for everyone else just to keep the stakes escalating. But then another part of me still waited for the other shoe to drop. The final scene where all the Liars hugged each other, cried, listened to Alison (Sasha Pieterse) provide one last obligatory, unsubtle wink to the audience (This does feel like an ending somehow, Ali!) lacked catharsis for me because I was waiting for them all to turn around and for Spencer to get on the phone with someone to say, "Right then jolly good, I'm in now. Toby chose the wrong Spencer and the bobbies have her in the clink for a long time. It's tea time, isn't it?" (That accent was something else.)
I also grew up with this show. I tuned in after having just moved to Los Angeles and not knowing anyone in this city. I sat around eating nachos from a Koreatown taco truck for weeks binging this show. Seven years later, the flurry of weddings and proposals feel oddly specific to me since I'm also getting married soon. And maybe that was really the power of this show all along. Every step of the way, I felt something in the show speak to me specifically. Whether it was Spencer's need to puzzle, Hanna (Ashley Benson) making quips about some of my favorite things, or the show itself catering to what I felt were my whims, this show was able to communicate a personal experience to all of its audience members individually. So for it to leave feels equally like I am freed from this anxiety prison but I'm also going to miss it. It was that show that I was allowed to make fun of but people who'd never seen the show weren't allowed to tease. I feel like I have this encyclopedic knowledge about Rosewood and now that has to be shelved unceremoniously. But, more importantly, I'm going to miss these girls. While Mona (Janel Parrish) might've gotten her happily ever after keeping her dolls, both toys and living, in France, I'm going to miss their weekly shenanigans.
Though I started this show based on a malicious lie (how dare you, Matt), it's become something I've cherished over the years. Is it Stockholm Syndrome? Who can say? But I've learned to love this little slice of television history. It's not like it brought me fame and fortune. Writing about the show didn't allow me to meet any of the stars or creators. But it's been a pleasure writing about this thing every week. And that's probably what I'll miss most of all. I'll miss talking with you about it and miss those of you who silently read every week (thank you!), those that debate with me in the comments and those that hollered at me for my opinions (my favorite were the Emison people who tweeted at me after my Summer of Romance piece saying they liked my writing but respectfully disagreed — a perfect encapsulation of the good people in the fandom).
I'm glad this show got to end on its terms, crazy as they might be. Because this show is the crazy in all of us, from the insanity that comes with romance to the anxieties of hidden enemies. And it went out its way to make us all feel as special as they thought we were. Thanks, Pretty Little Liars. You were weird. But you were definitely fun.