How 'Pretty Little Liars' Reinvented the Slasher

The ABC Family drama may be aimed at teen girls, but it's actually a surprisingly mature, masterfully crafted tease that any adult can enjoy.

ABC Family

Imagine a serial drama with fingernail-biting suspense, high-stakes romance, a capable cast and an intricate mystery that mixes shocking payoffs with savvy, multi-season storytelling. It exists—and it's neither by J.J. Abrams nor on HBO, AMC, or Showtime. It's fair to say that Lost and Homeland fans aren't the target audience of ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars, but they might want to tune in before it's too late.

Not that the show, now in its third season and based on the YA HarperTeen book series, suffers for viewers. The saga has an average viewership of 3.7 million and is particularly popular with young women, scoring its biggest ratings among the 12-34 demo—among whom, in fact, it's the top-rated scripted show on cable. If a glance at its social media following is any indication, it's the lower end of that age group that's most invested. The show's August season finale set a Twitter TV episode record with 1.6 million mentions, and October's Halloween special drew attention from a reported 433,000 tweeters—making the spoiler-rich series a rare island of appointment television in the streaming-and-DVR ocean. Pretty Little Liars fans have to know what happens next.

Watching the show, it doesn't take long to understand why. If AMC's The Walking Dead has extended the zombie film into endless survival horror, Pretty Little Liars is doing the same for the slasher genre. Yet in many ways, it's inverted the archetypes: Historically, slasher films slice their plots thinner than Oscar Mayer turkey, with some variation of a horrific tragedy, a shadowy killer seeking vengeance, and a group of attractive, airheaded young people dying one by bloody one. You'll find elements of all that in PLL, but over the course of three seasons, the patient show has inflicted not quite a half-dozen deaths, making each pivotal. And thanks to its PG-13 network, the gore and gratuitous sex of its cinematic relations is notably absent. What's left is a show that doubles down on plot, characters, and genuinely surprising reveals, moving with a slow, deep tension that turns every episode into a trembling trip to the multiplex. I Know What You Did Last Summer, it isn't.

While its teen-oriented fashion and occasional indulgence—those of legal age may and should cringe at the sweet but grossly inappropriate star-crossed romance between 16-year-old Aria and her hunky English teacher, Mr. Fitz—gives Pretty Little Liars a Hannah Montana-esque veneer, its substance cuts much deeper. The four liars, Aria, Emily, Hanna, and Spencer, are tormented by secrets of their own creation—mistakes made and hidden often in pursuit of doing the right thing, held over their heads by the mysterious, omnipresent A. She, or he, or both, hounds them in text messages and blackmail planted in school lockers and private bedrooms, drawing the girls into a secret life they don't dare share with their parents. Given the realities of high school bullying, it rings more true than not.

An effective supporting cast helps fill in the mystery blanks. Among them are Lucas, the puppy-dog nerd with a dark streak who falls hard for prom-queen Hanna; Caleb, a grungy hacker who looks like he stepped directly from 1995 into a Bravo makeover; and the elusive Toby, a put-upon outsider with an apparent heart as strong as his six-pack abs. His step-sister Jenna, the next-door neighbor blinded in a prank gone too far, gives the girls their first unmasked rival, but the tentative lines between hero and villain are redrawn more often than the scribblings on a first-year art student's sketchpad.

The quartet is bound together by their friendship with the murdered—or was she?—Alison DiLaurentis, a charismatic blonde who left more than a few enemies in her wake. Its heroines, at turns terrified and channeling their inner Jamie Lee Curtis, are strong and vivid, grappling with moral concerns from alcohol use to parental infidelity with nuance and complexity. Season One invests as much care in Emily (Shay Mitchells) coming out to her friends and family as it does in setting up its grisly finale; her parents' journey from hurtful to supportive develops naturally, without the need for sudden plot twists or emotional swerves. It makes Gossip Girl look like General Hospital.

For all the show's maturity, the scares are the thing, and Pretty Little Liars delivers them with ever-escalating zest. Alison's murder rests at the heart of the show: With each season so far, the mystery is seemingly solved, only for a flaw in the evidence or a puzzle from the past to turn the story on its head. A lesser show's bobbing and weaving might inspire an audience uproar, as The Killing learned not so long ago with its first season finale; PLL is not that show. Instead, each episode reveals another strand of an increasingly, believably broad web, with the kind of narrative ambition that ran Abram's Lost up the untenable creek of time travel and demigods. But so far, PLL seems to know where it's going. As close as the liars come to the truth each week, the real reward comes as the episodes end with an audience gift, a tantalizing scene of A, always in a black hoodie, in action. We know more than our heroines, or at least we think we do: Waiting for them to prove us right is half the fun. It's television that dares us not to miss it and trusts us when we don't. How grown-up is that?