Monday, July 19, 2010

Trash TV: Pretty Little Liars

What's up, supercool readers?

Is anyone else's summer cuckoo bananas crazy busy, or am I just weird?  It seems like I'm booked up every weekend through August, doing one random thing or class or work commitment after another.  I mean, it's fun stuff (mostly), but where is all the time going?  Anyhoozle, I'm trying to keep up with work, the blog, various other writing assignments, yet another edit on my latest manuscript AND my NaNoWriMo game plan (yes, I'm one of those nerds who has to map out a first draft months in advance--baaaad things happen when I write fiction off the cuff).  Like a marathon, yo.

What's nice about summer, though, is the abundance of trashy deep thought-free TV.  The shows you watch in the comfort of your A/C when you've had a loooong day at work and it's approximately 337 degrees outside.  You know, those series ABCFamily is too chicken to air during the fall, those wannabe Gossip Girls brought to you by Alloy Entertainment.  The ones that should make this 30-year-old feel, well, old, but they don't because at least two of the actresses playing high schoolers look more aged than I.  The ones that wallow in their own sudsiness without trying to be all moralistic (Secret Life of the American Teenager, I'm looking at you.  My ears are STILL bleeding from hearing The Actress Formerly Known as Ruthie Camden ask a ferret-faced dude if he's ever done it in a butcher shop).

The show I am referring to (and the awesomely soapy set of books it is based on) is Pretty Little Liars.

So here's the basic plot: four ugly (just kidding, they're PRETTY, see?) high school students are having a sleepover when their alpha female queen bee Alison walks out the door and never comes back.  A year later, the clique has gone their separate ways when Alison's body is discovered under her family's former home.  Even more sinister are the threatening messages from a mysterious source known only as A, threatening to reveal each girl's deepest darkest skeleton: clean-cut swimmer Emily likes girls; ugly-duckling-turned-popular-swan Hanna has a teeny shoplifting problem; alternative Aria unknowingly made out with her AP English teacher and wants a repeat performance; and brainy Spencer (who never bothers to ask her parents why she's 36 years old and still in high school) is lusting big time after her older sister's boyfriend.

Let's just say that if you played a Pretty Little Liars drinking game, you'd be wasted two minutes in.  But let's pretend for a second that we love vodka a little too much!  If you want to die of alcohol poisoning while lying on your couch in front of ABCFamily, take a drink when:
  • Someone overacts (two drinks if they Put. Em. Pha. Sis. On. Ev. E. Ry. Sy. Lla. Ble.  Im. POR. tant!)
  • Someone underacts (mumblemumblemumble because inaudible=INTENSE!)
  • Spencer drinks alcohol and everyone is all shocked because she's underage when of course she's actually 36
  • A horrible, horrible song comes on the soundtrack (really, ABCFamily's music supervisor could take a cue from Josh Schwartz's people.  From Gossip Girl, I discovered Miike Snow, Passion Pit and Anya Marina.  ABCFamily music is fucking heinous, especially the Pretty Little Liars theme song, which rivals The L Word's in terms of toneless awfulness).  Just to give you an idea, last week's Homecoming episode featured a "live" performance of a hipster white guy rapping.  NO.
  • Unnecessary dance or party (it's like Sweet Valley High without the Todd punch!)
  • A sends a text that is supposed to be witty and suspenseful when really it's just laughably punny
But just like Grease 2 and Mac and Me, it's the show's very essence of awful that makes it so incredibly awesome.

Okay, and I really like Aria's wardrobe.

And of course I've played right into ABCFamily and Alloy's evil corporate marketing hands by buying the books (sometimes two or three at a time, sometimes going to more than one bookstore if they've run out because everyone else is a sucker too).  Let me tell you, if you're looking for reading so light the short words practically fly off the page, look no further.  This is pulp fiction at its pulpiest, like a romance novel without the naughty sex scenes (because these are teenagers, see).  

Why am I loving this shiz so very much, squealing whenever I see another PLL book with a Barbie-esque doll on the cover and a real girl with the same clothes on the other side?  (SYMBOLISM.)  I could do the whole it's-summer-and-my-brain-is-supposed-to-be-shut-off rigmarole, which is very true in its own way.  But by reading and watching Pretty Little Liars, I'm also learning about something I never thought I'd get out of summertime guilty pleasures: a lesson in story structure.

Yes, you heard that last part right.

One of the faults my writing suffers from is sometimes the stakes aren't high enough.  Or a reader doesn't want to root for my characters--they fall in the realm of too boring or too bitchy.  (Lesson: if you're still kind of bitter about your high school experience, do NOT base your seventeen-year-old small-town girl protagonist on yourself at that age.)  Pretty Little Liars has been helping me on both counts.  As flawed as the girls are, I can remember feeling like I don't fit in with my peers (Emily), parental pressure to succeed (Spencer), boyfriend frustration (Hanna) and weird family dynamics (Aria).  Even Alison I can't totally hate because she brought the girls together, and they still miss her even though they are seeing the cracks in their friendships' facade.  

Also, when it comes to setting high stakes, I once had a writing teacher tell me never to let my characters get too comfortable.  With this in mind, my NaNoWriMo idea involves my protagonists literally going way out of their comfort zones and venturing into the unknown.  And in both the books and the TV show, the Pretty Little Liars ladies aren't comfortable for more than half a page or scene.  Then another twist or text or secret gets thrown into the mix.  Drama for the ADHD generation?  Sure, but the fact that it's so extreme is helpful to me.  It's like my voice teacher used to tell me--better to overdo at an audition than underdo.  A director is much more comfortable asking you to scale back than to try to squeeze blood from a turnip.

Granted, this could all be a big justification in my head for enjoying a silly show and book series when I could be relearning French, rewatching The Godfather, or reinventing the wheel.  However, I do like to think that I can glean some nugget of knowledge from everything I put in my noggin.  And who knows?  Maybe I'll someday publish a bestseller (hell, I'll settle for landing a literary agent), and I'll have my summer 2010 pop culture obsession to thank.

Now, where's my vodka?


  1. I have this theory that even the worst scripted shows (this. Secret Life. Seventh Heaven) are still better than even the best reality shows. (I guess Amazing Race?) Because script writers always have more interesting things to make characters say than real live people do. Especially real live people who are idiot enough to go on a reality show.

  2. Those girls in the poster are meant to be in high school? Yikes. Sounds like a guilty indulgence I'd go for too.

  3. Nikki: the exception I make for reality shows are the competition ones like So You Think You Can Dance, Project Runway and Top Chef. Often those guys have real talent, and I like that dancers and artists are getting exposure and maybe some money, as you don't go into those fields to be rich.

    Amiee: I know, right? The girl with her finger over her lips could maaaaaybe pass for a high schooler, but the rest of them, forget it.

  4. I just read Pretty Little Liars, though I haven't watched the show yet. But I agree with your assessment completely - the structure/pacing is amazing - I am on pins and needles for the next book! (and a little ashamed of myself).

  5. we should catch this new episode of watch pretty little liars season 1 online cause this is one of the best episode of this tv series. tnx for this info iam so excited to this i should watch it.

  6. Pretty little liars is a super cool show. I just ended up watching season 1 episodes of pretty little liars. Sana is my favorite character from this show. I feel bad about Alison who got died.. lets see what's ABC gonna plan in pretty little liars for its upcoming season.