It was a cultural reset: 10 years of Pretty Little Liars

In 2010 we all became internet sleuths, invested in the identity of A, and the world of TV fandom was never the same again.

by Tom George
23 June 2020, 1:00pm

In the summer of 2010 we were craving a new teen drama series. Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill had both recently done major time-jumps, moving their characters on from high school basketball, or eating lunch on the stairs of the Met, to university and life after. Although both shows were still going strong, this would be the start of their decline in both TV ratings and cultural relevance.

Enter Pretty Little Liars. The show, based on the popular book series of the same name, was about ridiculously attractive people being stalked and manipulated by an omniscient, omnipresent figure hiding behind a digital mask. So far sounds like Gossip Girl right? But what made PLL -- as stans quickly dubbed it -- so addictive, perhaps even more so than its predecessors, was the way in which it mixed the escapist tropes of rich teen lifestyle dramas with the thrills and horrors of a murder mystery. We watched as the four main characters -- whose cuttingly-bitchy friend, Alison Dilaurentis, is found dead after going missing at their sleepover a year prior -- start to receive sinister text messages from ‘A’, who claims to know what they did last summer and threatens to expose all their deep dark secrets.

In a review of the first season Entertainment Weekly said "the only thing missing is a visit from the ghosts of Jennifer Love Hewitt and Freddie Prinze, Jr." They were right: PLL took the high school secrets and scandals of Gossip Girl and blended it with the light 90s horror exemplified by I Know What You Did Last Summer, and we ate it up, especially Gen Z girls. A review of social media interactions found that 94% of the show's audience engagement was female teenagers.

As the first series to resonate with young female zoomers, PLL was game-changing for the TV industry. And it's not hard to see why. With six strong female leads and a cast that included queer, POC and even trans characters, the show embraced a diversity of cultures and identities in a way its predecessors hadn’t. It should be noted though, that looking back through a 2020 lens, Pretty Little Liars was not immune to the tone-deaf cringiness that plagued its contemporaries (yes, we're talking about Glee). While it was ambitious in covering mental health storylines and depicting conditions like dissociative identity disorder, PLL didn't always nail it. Psychologists, writers and activists would call out the way the show often associated mental health issues and lapses with evil characters and bad decisions while presenting treatments and facilities as Victorian and using outdated terms, like "multiple personality disorder", that are no longer used in psychiatry.

But in spite of these flaws, the show, and its fandom, have stood the test of time. While it was airing, viewers formed an impressive online community, using forums like Reddit to piece together the twisting rollercoaster of PLL's seven season run. With each new twist posing a new potential suspect for ‘A’ -- from Aria’s English Teacher turned boyfriend, to the homeless guy living in the school vents, to the blind girl who was not actually blind but then did go blind but then recovered her sight but then lost it again (?) -- fans would take to the internet to share their evidence and theories on the show’s mysteries.

To follow a plot this convoluted required dedication. The PLL fandom page alone currently has 70,798 posts since the show's creation documenting theories across 5,755 threads. YouTube was also a common platform for fan sleuthing, with videos uploaded weekly closely examining everything from a characters’ clothing choices to the fact the letter A was in a poster behind them, detailed analysis that would make Baudi Moovan proud. If a character was later proven to be innocent, these internet detectives would start from scratch, re-evaluating their evidence and coming up with new theories.

"I spent a lot of time theorising over the show’s seven seasons but I don’t regret a thing!" says Katrina, who is now 27 years old and was an admin for the PLL fandom page at its peak. She and other fans would gather in the Wiki chat rooms and watch the episodes together. “I felt like a detective solving a giant master puzzle. I loved the feeling of accomplishment when our theories were proven true.’ To many this might sound tedious -- maybe even time-wasting -- but to watch PLL alone was to miss out on its best part, the discussion. As a 14 year old, why would I be studying for my upcoming exams when I could instead be investigating why Aria’s Zara crop top in Series X Episode Y confirms she is A?

And, unlike other obsessive stan communities, these internet sleuths, whose obsession breathed life into the show for many years, were successful. One Tumblr account, TheBestPLLTheories, correctly predicted the show's final mystery after picking up on an offhand moment involving one of the characters earlier on in the show that seemed weird: "The Spencer I knew would never do that," James, the 19 year old account owner, said in an interview at the time. One of the reasons PLL has stood the test of time was that the fans dug so deep into the mystery that they came to know the characters better than the cast or the writers did themselves. The relationship in turn became symbiotic, as the show's creators became aware of fan theories and even began to play into them. Scenery and fashions would be littered with clues and evidence pointing to different fan theories and ideas, or to redirect viewers away from certain lines of thinking. Ina Marlene King, the show's producer, even suggested in an interview with Vulture that fan discussions online played a role in which of the Liars' relationships would make it to the finale and which would not.

After the finale, producers clearly realised that fans still had lingering questions and they promised to answer many of them in the new spin off series: Pretty Little Liars - The Perfectionists (2018) starring a whole new cast, this time at university with two of the original Liars as faculty. Though promising, the show lost fans by desecrating original endgame PLL relationships and was cancelled 10 episodes in before it could answer leftover mysteries.

But these lingering plot holes ultimately didn’t matter. The mysteries of the show had expanded outside the fictional town of Rosewood and into the recesses of the internet. To this day, the PLL fandom page continues to have activity with fans posing questions for others to theorise answers to. Some fans don’t even consider the controversial finale, with its overdone twin storylines and terrible English accents, as definitive, believing that the ultimate mystery reveals were just further lies in a show built on them.

Bad endings have a habit of killing a show’s entire legacy (*cough* Game of Thrones *cough*). One moment they are the epitome of contemporary culture, the next we pretend like they never happened. PLL may not be considered the strongest offering from the golden age of TV drama, but its ability to create a fandom entirely dedicated to solving the show's mysteries is a testament to its addictiveness. The investigative spirit of its fandom has passed down into the those of Riverdale and You. Who knows, perhaps its fan culture will even come full circle and influence the upcoming reboot of Gossip Girl.

Pretty Little Liars
it was a cultural reset