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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Pretty Little Liars: "For Whom The Bell Tolls"

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What do you get when you take four impossibly gorgeous and popular high school girls, dress them up in wacky wardrobes, and drop them in the middle of a twisty, somewhat nonsensical murder mystery with a clever title? Well, if you’re ABC Family, you get a big hit series in Pretty Little Liars. The question is, is there anything deeper hiding behind those feather earrings and mild cliffhangers? I’ve been a somewhat loyal viewer since the beginning, and I am going to have to say… no.

The show is kind of like Taylor Momsen: The outside is all faux-danger and rebellious sadgirl drama, all covering up an interior that is mostly just a pretty teenage girl with a small but genuine amount of talent and woefully absent parental figures. As is the case with Momsen’s refusal to wear pants so she can shock the world with her garish bits, the mystery at the core of Pretty Little Liars keeping the characters in constant fear is simply a series of shiny red herrings designed to distract viewers into believing the whole mystery will eventually equal the sum of its (mostly unnecessary and uninteresting) parts.

Now, this isn’t to say the mystery isn’t fitfully entertaining. When the foursome is actively involved in attempting to find A or figure out who murdered Alison and bring them to justice, as they were in tonight’s finale, the mystery elements work because the characters are the ones propelling them forward. It’s when episode upon episode goes by with the characters passively letting things happen to them and simply moping about their horrible lives instead of taking action that everything falls apart, and it's unclear why the mystery elements exist at all except to fulfill some sort of episode-by-episode “A quota” imparted by the network.

It doesn’t help that the entire mystery in itself is something of a haphazardly placed house of cards; one slight shift of the breeze in the wrong direction and the whole thing will most likely implode on itself, leaving only tangentially related pieces scattered all over with no chance of rebuilding a coherent whole. Once A’s identity is revealed, do we really believe it is going to make any sort of sense? At this point, A is everywhere, and yet nowhere. A is all seeing and all knowing, but still refuses to reveal himself (it definitely has to be a he, right?, after the figure we saw save Spencer). If it isn’t God, I don’t know who it could possibly be, because no human being could know all of the things A knows and be all of the places A has been. It’s past the point of stretching believability and has moved on to full on self-parody, which was noted by the characters themselves tonight, when one remarked, “A knows everything.” Unless A is someone’s previously unrevealed psychic twin—or maybe a ghost!—I just don’t see how any of it will hold together in any sort of satisfactory way.

When you get past the shaky mystery, what you have left is the characters, and this, too, has been a mixed bag. The show can be commended for many of the ways it portrays the four lead female characters; there’s a believable bond there and a refreshing lack of any sort of jealousy, competition, or other petty garbage that usually comes along with female friendships on a teen-centric show. What the series has struggled with, however, is creating compelling storylines for all of the leads separate from the mystery element, and all storylines seem to revolve around one thing: the ladies’ love lives. I’m not saying romance on a teen show is unwanted—in fact, it is welcomed—but every road for these four seems to lead to a man (or woman). This can be a somewhat good thing, in the case of Spencer and Toby or Hanna and Caleb, or it can be very, very, very bad.

By bad, you know I can only mean Aria, right? Her ridiculous affair with teacher Mr. Fitz has been the biggest disappointment of this first season, as the extremely talented and adorable Lucy Hale is trapped in a highly offensive and deadly boring subplot that seems to have no end. The show wants us to believe it’s not creepy, because they’re in love, and they don’t sleep together. Sorry to break it to you, show, but it’s definitely creepy, and acting like it isn’t creepy is the creepiest aspect of it all. The finale ended with Mr. Fitz accepting a job at the local college, so he and Aria can now be free to see each other in public, but how is this not still entirely, disgustingly skeevy? “Hey, I’m a high school teacher who got a new job so I can scam on high school girls now! Score!” Mr. Fitz, please go away. And take your dumb distraction of an ex-wife with you.

As for the finale itself, it was much stronger than the season as a whole. The entire episode revolved around the central mystery, with the foursome attempting to trap Ian into revealing he was Alison’s killer. Predictably for this show, it wasn’t that simple, as the plot took at least 10 different zigs and zags before getting to the final deadly confrontation between Spencer and Ian in the church bell tower. Here’s what I think happened (I say “I think” because this might have been the most confusing episode of television so far this year): The girls found Alison’s videotapes, one of which showed Jenna blackmailing Toby into sleeping with her (which is gleefully disturbing). They assumed these tapes were shot by Ian because he is a peeping Tom creep of the highest order and also suspected that Ian killed Alison to keep her from revealing his proclivities.

Meanwhile, they confronted Jenna who told them Alison was blackmailing her as well: If Jenna kept quiet about the fire that blinded her, Alison wouldn’t post videos of Jenna rape-seducing her stepbrother. But was any of that true at all? Because when the girls try to flush Ian out by anonymously offering him the tapes if he gives them cash, someone sends a patsy instead (and we can’t be sure who sent him). MEANWHILE, because enough hasn’t happened yet, Jenna appears to be in cahoots with neighborhood cop Garrett. And by “in cahoots” I mean in his pants, and both she and Garrett are very interested in those tapes.

The whole thing ends with Ian trying to kill Spencer, pin Alison’s murder on her, and make Spencer’s own death look like a suicide over the guilt. Why? It's never explicitly stated, but it appears to me he might think Melissa killed Alison and is doing this to cover for her and is therefore mostly innocent in this whole thing, a classic patsy. He ends up being killed by A, but his body disappears! So when the cops come, everyone thinks Spencer and her friends are lying about what happened in the church. So as the episode ends, Ian is dead and/or missing, Spencer still believes Ian killed Alison, the entire town thinks all four girls are liars, and we don’t know much more than we did before the winter season started.

Whew. Are you confused yet? I sure am. Are they ever going to reveal Alison’s killer? How about A’s identity? And why the heck was Noel in the crowd of onlookers at the church? It’s all 10 shades of too complicated, even if the episode was a lot of fun to watch. In retrospect, however, it doesn’t really hold together at all.

While I’m obviously not a huge fan of the show now, I must admit it didn’t start out this way. When Pretty Little Liars debuted last summer, I was hooked. The trashy, unchallenging mystery show full of pretty people with ridiculous drama was perfectly pitched summer programming and was a welcome part of my weekly routine up to and including the fun summer finale. When it returned in January, however, the thrill was gone. There’s something about a show like this that doesn’t seem to work outside of the summer months, and I found my attention quickly drifting away. Obviously, the core audience of the show doesn’t agree, as the winter premiere got the highest ratings to date, but the fascination for me was gone. After this very entertaining (if convoluted) finale, here’s hoping when the show comes back in June, some of the summer magic comes back with it.

Stray observations:

  • Questions for next season: Who was in the car that hit Melissa and Spencer? Is Ian really dead? If so, did A hide his body? What is up with Garrett the cop and Jenna, and who actually shot those videotapes? Will Emily move to Texas? Will Mr. Fitz and Aria ever stop being creepy?
  • Fun fact: This episode was directed by the extremely talented Lesli Linka Glatter, of Mad Men and The Chicago Code fame, among many others. She also directed the pilot.
  • Theory: One of Aria’s parents is A and the other is the murderer, because otherwise there is no excuse for them having so much screen time. I don't mind either Chad Lowe or Holly Marie Combs, but their story is complete snoozeville.
  • Wishful thinking theory: Mr. Fitz killed Alison, because it would be an extremely dark turn and also super fun to see Aria lose her mind.
  • One time, Hanna unapologetically smacked the sunglasses right off of a blind girl’s face. It was pretty awesome.
  • “Humor’s subjective.”
  • “Did you leave a note for your mom?” “Yeah: Dear Mommy, I went to the woods to trap a killer.”
  • A: “It’s not over until I say it is. Sleep tight while you still can, bitches.”