TV Review: ABC Family's 'Pretty Little Liars'
Casting problems dog ABC Family's latest attempt to expand its brand
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Summertime is ABC Family time, as far as I'm concerned. I've discovered over the past year that if you program "Greek" in the summer, I'll watch episodes, but otherwise I can't find the time. I've discovered that if you put "Make It or Break It" or "10 Things I Hate About You" during the summer, I'll watch them, but otherwise I won't find the time. There's a whole, wide assortment of shows where I'm constantly aware I'm not demo-appropriate that seem palatable in those interludes where my biggest network TV responsibilities are buffering the first hour of a two-hour "So You Think You Can Dance" performance episode before zipping through on my DVR.
That's why even though I'm clearly not the target audience for ABC Family's new "Pretty Dirty Liars," I'm definitely a viable alternative audience, as a viewer with a pretty fair tolerance for guilty pleasures between June and August.
Unfortunately, in its pilot at least, "Pretty Little Liars" just isn't cutting it. An uneven hybrid of "Gossip Girl," "Desperate Housewives" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer," the ensemble drama suffers from clunky dialogue, over-hasty plotting and several pieces of poor casting.
I can't rule out watching a second episode, but even after one hour, my interest is waning.
[Full review, keeping in mind my way-out-of-the-demo perspective, after the break...]
After a brief prelude, the action picks up one year after a group of four friends lost their leader and Queen Bee, Alison (Sasha Pieterse). Actually, they didn't lose Alison so much as she went missing and, without her as their glue, the four buds (Lucy Hale, Troian Bellsario, Shay Mitchell and Ashley Benson) have become estranged and slightly antagonistic. When the friends start getting messages from a mysterious and seeming omniscient "A," matters get complicated and myriad secrets run the risk of being exposed.
Based on the popular young adult series by Sara Shepard, "Pretty Little Liars" is a not-fully-convincing step in ABC Family's progression from wholesome young-skewing programming into slightly risque material meant to take on The CW head-on. The characters in "Pretty Little Liars" are bad girls indeed. They smoke pot, kiss girls, make out with teachers, shoplift, seduce their older sisters' fiancés and if it turns out that one or all of them ended up killing Alison, nobody would be surprise. But they're bad girls in an ABC Family way that seems quaint and almost cutely naive compared to that the snobby socialites of "Gossip Girl," also an Alloy literary property, get into.
At least it's short on the heavy-handed moralizing that often clog "Make It or Break It" and "Secret Life of the American Teenager," but that's almost because the young women of "Pretty Little Liars" hardly seem to be rebelling at all. "Greek" remains the only ABC Family show that manages to blend New ABC Family Edge with Old ABC Family Heart.
"Pretty Little Liars" probably needed to premiere as a two-hour telefilm, rather than a rushed hour. In 44 minutes, it's just impossible for the show to establish the dynamic amongst the main characters, introduce their families (with parents played by the likes of Laura Leighton, Holly Marie Combs and Chad Lowe) and lay enough backstory foundation for the question of the unknown "A" to be worth pondering. Even helmed by the talented and versatile Leslie Linka Glatter ("Mad Men," "Gilmore Girls"), the pilot is overflowing with expositional information, which supersedes plot to a frustrating degree.
The show is also a rare ABC Family show to suffer from faulty casting. The actresses in the lead roles aren't the same age and don't look the same age, so trying to fathom what age any of them are supposed to be becomes really frustrating. Hale and Benson are the closest in age and appearance to their characters and, as a result, are the most believable as teens. Hale, in particular, is doing an excellent job of slowly and effectively aging up in her transition from "American Juniors" to "Privileged" to this. In contrast, Troian Bellisario, as Spencer, is 25 and looks older than most of the cast of The CW's disastrous "Melrose Place" reboot. Mitchell, burdened with more character inconsistencies than any pilot could handle, also looks and acts several years older than Hale and Benson. But Pieterse, seen only in flashbacks, is 14 and looks 14. I just don't get how somebody didn't pause production on the pilot for immediate recasting, since this quintet doesn't pass even the most basic eye-test.
Lowe, Combs and Leighton are such pros that you immediately start caring more about the parents and their secrets than the mismatched teens. The comparable billing to the older generation characters has been something "Make It or Break It" has done well, but that show has never had this kind of disconnect with its younger core.
I could accept that "Pretty Little Liars" is just over-burdened in its pilot and I'd be interesting in seeing what rhythm the show sets for subsequent episodes. Maybe the pretty little liars will become more interesting or at least start telling bigger lies? I'm not sure, though, that that'll do anything to fix my issues with the cast, nor am I sure if those issues are a deal breaker for me. One more episode... If it doesn't play better, the show probably wasn't made for me anyway.
"Pretty Little Liars" premieres on Tuesday, June 8 on ABC Family.
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