There are many things that are an issue with Pretty Little Liars, ABC Family's newest attempt to capture some of that slightly older CW audience for itself, but the thing that should alarm all of us the most is the fact that Holly Marie Combs can now play the mother of a teenager and somewhat convincingly. I mean, sure, she'll be 40 in a few years, but, good God, I remember when she was my teenage crush on Picket Fences. And her husband is played by Chad Lowe! Is this what aging is like? Slowly watching the actors and actresses you grew up with getting older and realizing in the back of your head that you are getting older too and refusing to acknowledge it? Or am I crazy? Probably the latter.
Or maybe I can take comfort in the fact that this show just doesn't know how to cast anyone to fit in the right age range. Of its central fivesome of teen girls, only Lucy Hale (whom you may remember from such series as Bionic Woman and Privileged and/or her short stint as Robin's kid sister on How I Met Your Mother) seems like she could plausibly be a 16-year-old girl. The others are all either way, way too old - like Troian Bellisario, who's playing a 16-year-old who looks decidedly older than her supposed-to-be-in-her-20s sister (and, thus, more of a match for her sister's new guy) - or weirdly young - like Sasha Pieterse as the former queen bee, Alison, whose disappearance left a void in the high school social strata that has since been filled in unlikely ways. Pieterse is 14, and she looks 14, which means that when she's supposed to be playing the girl who bosses the other girls around, you sort of wonder why Bellisario doesn't unhinge her jaw and swallow the little waif whole.
I get that this show desperately wants to be Gossip Girl. It's based on a series of young adult novels, just like that CW show, and those novels were initially conceived of as a television series, sort of Desperate Housewives with teenagers. Both have their teenage characters indulging in a wacky multitude of sins, including drinking, pot smoking, and making out with teachers (this being ABC Family, all of these things are seen as roughly equal sins). Both have collected an insane number of attractive girls in their teens and 20s to play these teenagers and a nice collection of character actors and faded TV stars as their parents. But I don't know that the cloning needs to extend so far as having a 14-year-old pop up as one of the most threatening characters. Just because Taylor Momsen (who is slowly but surely evolving into a barn owl) pulled it off on Gossip Girl - sort of - doesn't mean you can make it work all of the time.
There's that sense of "WHAT THE FUCK ARE WE DOING?!" that runs pervasively through Pretty Little Liars, which, honestly, comes from a network that usually has a pretty good sense of what it is and what it wants to do. I've enjoyed a good number of ABC Family shows over the past few years, and I was all down for a dark soap with pretty girls for summer fun. Instead, this kind of fizzles out like a wet firecracker, particularly in the pilot, which is way, way overburdened and, apparently, attempts to encapsulate basically everything that happened in the first book, if the Wikipedia plot summary I read of the first book is to be believed.
Here's what Pretty Little Liars is about. Five girls ruled the school a year ago, led by their ferocious bitch of a 14-year-old queen, Alison. Alison knew everything about everyone, and that allowed for her to ride high over the school's hallways because she could use information against everyone. Then, one night at a sleepover, Alison disappeared. Now, it's a year later, and our point-of-view character, Aria, played by Hale, has returned from Iceland. (I could probably recall why, exactly, she and her family went to Iceland, but I can't be bothered to.) Former nerds are now hot chicks, there's a new social pecking order, her dad is trying to get her to keep silent about that whole thing where he made out with a student and she just happened to stumble upon them, and the world is just generally topsy-turvy and unstable. Aria doesn't know what any of it means anymore, and then she starts making out with the new hot guy she meets and, oops, he's her AP English teacher. This is more or less exactly how I spent my time that one fateful summer when I was a hot-ass teenage girl.
Anyway, now that Aria is back in town and trying to figure out how to navigate this new social order, it's only natural that someone would start harrassing her with text messages signed "A" that talk about her deepest, darkest secrets. And, wouldn't you know it, the other girls from the former clique all start getting messages like this as well. Who could this mysterious A that is subtly threatening everyone be? Well, honestly, I've read the Wikipedia plot summary, so I know, though I suppose it's possible that the show will go in a different direction. But it sure seems like they want us to think it's Alison, who is maybe not as dead as she seems, except when they have a funeral for her and everything at episode's end. (Though, of course, it's closed casket, and this is TV, and when you send Sayid to shoot Desmond in the well, you'd better damn well check to see the body.)
I try not to spend too much time on plot recap in these reviews. These pieces are for you to make as good of a guess about whether you're going to want to watch something or not, based almost entirely on how often your opinion lines up with mine. Hopefully, I'm able to express just what it is I do and don't like about the show. In this case, though, I've only barely begun to scratch the surface of what's going on in the plot here. I normally like complicated world building in my television shows, but the world built in Pretty Little Liars works so hard to make sure that it crams in as much from the books as it possibly can (I assume) that everything gets only the most cursory of glances. The pilot feels at once completely pointless and overstuffed. There's so much going on that it often feels like there's nothing going on. In fact, the episode has a bad case of first-act-itis, where the story of the pilot bears basically no resemblance to an episode of television and is, instead, the first act of a movie.
This is all too bad. There are things that could be enjoyable about a show where teenage girls indulge in terrible behavior (that is nonetheless presented chastely because this IS ABC Family, and tonight, the leadout to three-straight airings of the pilot was The 700 Club, where Pat Robertson ranted about how he knew what we all did last summer). But there's a laziness to the execution here that makes everything feel strangely rushed. The casting is off, the scripting is too hectic, and the direction is of the sort where a scene is introduced via an establishing shot of a girl's crotch (ostensibly so we can check out her skirt, I guess). Pretty Little Liars wants to be a guilty pleasure, but it's trying way too damn hard.