I am a recovering mean girl. I was in a girl clique in high school, and I’ve regretted some of our habits (matching T-shirts, exclusive sleep-overs, incessant gossiping) ever since. That’s why binge-watching Pretty Little Liars over the last several months has been such a jarring experience: It made me remember why being in a clique was fun in the first place.
The show, which starts the second half of its fourth season on Tuesday evening, is among the most-watched series in ABC Family’s history: More than three million people tuned in for the summer finale in August. Nielsen SocialGuide reports that 637,000 people tweeted about the episode 1.9 million times. Liars does particularly well with women aged 12 to 34, who made up about two-thirds of the audience for the summer finale; predictably, a good portion of that group was middle- and high-schoolers.
Why has the show struck such a chord with younger women? For one thing, it’s hard to resist the murderous plot twists and “OMG moments,” as the show’s creator calls them. But the inner world of the show also has an irresistible draw: It invites viewers to feel like part of an unfolding drama, an intimate circle of secret-telling, a group of people like them. (My roommate and I are constantly arguing about which one of us is more like Spencer, the slightly prissy, overachieving brainiac who is clearly the best character in the series.) Much like being in a clique, watching the show makes you feel like you’re living an “OMG”-worthy life.
Admittedly, this is a little alarming, considering how twisted the world of Pretty Little Liars is: Four teenage best friends—Aria, Emily, Hanna, and Spencer—drifted apart after the murder of their best friend, Allison, but they reunite when they all start getting untraceable texts from someone who calls herself (himself?) “A,” ostensibly standing for “Allison.” This mysterious stalker somehow knows all of their deepest secrets, and as the four friends try to solve the murder, “A” threatens to reveal all of their lies and misdeeds. For a group of 16- or 17-year-old girls, they’ve certainly committed their fair share of sins. Aria secretly dates her English teacher; Spencer breaks up her sister’s engagement when she makes out with the fiancé; Emily lies to her parents about getting into college; Hanna seems to steal compulsively. “A” mocks the girls as they endure one dramatic incident after another: Getting trapped in a wooden box with a dead body and almost pushed out of a moving train. Being drugged and framed for digging up Allison’s corpse. Having to stab and kill a stalker after being kidnapped and chased through the woods. And, obviously worst of all, breaking up with a whole roster of love interests who fall prey to A’s vengeful pranks. (Before she died, Allison was undoubtedly the craziest of them all: She once threw a bomb into a neighbor’s garage, blinding a girl.)
The name of the show teases viewers with one idea of what the characters are like: deceitful, annoyingly pretty, malicious. But what’s remarkable about Pretty Little Liars is that the four “liars” aren’t one-dimensional mean girls at all—they’re sometimes kind, sometimes thoughtless, often generous, and often judgmental. Aria, Emily, Hanna, and Spencer fall into the murky territory between mean girls and stereotypical “nice girls” (think Rory Gilmore), which makes the show seem much more authentic.
The four friends clearly care about each other a lot, and for the most part, they act like decent people. Despite their shortcomings, the “liars” mostly try to treat others well: Hanna goes out of her way to befriend Lucas, the school’s yearbook editor and prototypical nerd. Aria offers to babysit when her boyfriend/former teacher discovers that he’s the father of a five-year-old kid. Spencer hawks her sister’s wedding ring to buy her broke boyfriend a truck so that he can get a job. (Okay, maybe that last one doesn’t count.)
But they also fall into some of the hallmark patterns of clique-y mean girls. They’re collectively suspicious of kids who strike them as weird—like Mona, the nerd-turned-prep who desperately wanted to be friends with Allison. They throw occasional dramatic fits, like when Emily tells off Jenna, the girl who Allison caused to go blind. And most potently, the girls are guilty of overwhelming groupthink about the other people in their lives—they are deeply convinced that a different person killed Allison in basically every other episode.