by Brian Tomasik
First written: 15 Apr. 2016; last update: 2 Aug. 2016

On the night of 10 July 2014, I began exercising while watching Netflix before bed. I picked out a TV show from near the top of Netflix's recommendations, figuring I'd watch one episode. By the time the first episode closed, I said to myself, "This is intriguing. Just one more episode." Unfortunately, like Frog and Toad eating cookies, I didn't stop after just one more. I continued on for several more episodes until I became so tired that I couldn't stay awake.

That dangerously addictive show was Pretty Little Liars (PLL). [Note: This review contains no spoilers.] Among fiction I've encountered, PLL may be rivaled only by Harry Potter in terms of its ability to draw the audience deep into an extended thicket of interwoven mysteries and puzzles. (That said, I don't consume as much fiction as many people do, so my ability to make comparisons is limited.)

Many TV shows start a new conflict each episode and resolve that conflict by the end. They have to return the situation of the characters back to the way things were. There may be exceptions for special episodes where new permanent developments unfold, but most episodes of such TV shows are self-contained and independent of other episodes.

In contrast, PLL isn't divided into independent parts. It's one long, interconnected story, where every new event depends on the entire history of the show up to that point, and every little detail may (or may not) turn out to be relevant later. It's impressive that the PLL writers are able to craft such a tightly woven storyline despite having different people write different episodes and not being able to go back and revise episodes that have already aired.a

Unlike with most other shows, I found myself thinking about PLL even when I wasn't watching it. I kept mulling over the puzzle pieces and the various theories that they suggested while brushing my teeth or going to bed. This is, of course, a common experience among PLL viewers, and it explains why fans have written so much about the show on the web. PLL is one of the most Tweeted shows of all time. There are at least ~5 podcasts devoted to analyzing PLL on iTunes. Of course, similar points can be said of other complex TV shows as well:

the Web has created a forum for annotation and commentary that allows more complicated shows to prosper, thanks to the fan sites where each episode of shows like "Lost" or "Alias" is dissected with an intensity usually reserved for Talmud scholars.

But PLL is not just a mystery. I also appreciate the drama and romance, although it can be predictable at times. It's nice that PLL's characters are often more realistic than those in many other TV shows, although there are plenty of exceptions to this statement, such as the fact that the residents of the town where PLL takes place aren't more suspicious of all the strange events that occur. Some of the motivations of the characters are also a bit strained at times.

One of the goals of PLL's writers seems to be introducing the show's mostly teenage audience to classics of literature and film, from To Kill A Mockingbird in season 1 to Twelfth Night in season 7. In interviews with PLL's writers and directors on the Bros Watch PLL Too podcast, we learn that a number of the scenes and visual framings of the show are inspired by old movies, especially those of Alfred Hitchcock. The writers and directors are film buffs and artists who appreciate getting to express themselves, even if it's through what many write off as "just a teen show".

When I was in middle school, I wanted to become a director of photography because I was fascinated by interesting camera angles in movies and how they could help tell a story nonverbally. The hosts of Bros Watch PLL Too do a nice job of dissecting PLL shots, and their interviews with PLL's directors confirm that many of those interesting shots were done intentionally.

Podcasts like Bros Watch PLL Too and Taking This One To The Grave remind me how enjoyable it can be to analyze literature: characters, themes, symbolism, and theories about how the story will unfold. I haven't done this much since high-school English class. Literary analysis is sort of a Rorschach test, where the interpreters see connections that the author probably didn't intend. It can be frustrating when literary analysts assume that they're uncovering the true intentions of the writers, since that's often not the case unless the symbolism is very strong. But seeing connections between concepts in a work of literature, whether intended or not, is just fun and expresses creativity.

PLL's theme music is "Secret" by The Pierces. That song includes this line: "No one keeps a secret". That's a central theme of the show -- that the truth has a way of making itself known eventually. Most of the drama of PLL could have been avoided if people hadn't told lies in the first place. Thus, PLL is, in many ways, an elaboration of the famous lines:

Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!

Of course, in the real world, not all (or even most) secrets are exposed, but the lesson remains instructive.

  1. I wonder if mysteries look harder to create than they actually are. Maybe if you have the full story arc mapped out, it's not that hard to keep feeding the audience new tidbits of information over time, although writers have to be careful to remember what audiences know and don't know at any given point, especially when trying to misdirect audiences toward false conclusions. Writing a mystery might be like creating a jigsaw puzzle, just slightly harder: You start with a finished picture, carve it into chunks of information, and let the audience slowly put together the pieces. However, whereas you can usually tell what a puzzle will turn out to be a picture of with only a fraction of the pieces in place, a mystery needs to avoid spilling the beans until the very end.  (back)