Pretty Little Liars has suffered from a bit of bad luck, in that it has been a fairly crowded year for the narrative of “woman gets trapped in underground bunker, escapes.” Unfortunately, PLL just doesn’t carry the emotional nuance of Room or the brilliant specificity of Kimmy Schmidt, leaving this portrayal feeling like it’s missing something. It’s clear, especially with this first episode of season 6B, that the show is attempting to tackle more adult subject matter – but the writers are still handling issues in a very Teen-with-a-capital-T manner. On PLL, this trauma is enough to plague the Liars even after the distance of five years – but it’s also something that self-medication and the support of friends can fix.
In many ways, the way PLL has dealt with this storyline helps to reassert the show within the teen genre. PLL has always been a teen drama through and through, with its attention to lip gloss and revolving door of love interests. It makes sense that a show aimed at young girls would skim over this kind of trauma – it’s the kind of gritty and dark content they may not be ready for, or want, from their favorite show. (That being said, there’s no reason we shouldn’t expect more from the teen genre – no matter what network it airs on.)
Moving away from darker material also points towards the level of wish fulfillment inherent in the show – particularly in relation to female friendship. Hanna, Spencer, Emily and Aria are deemed special – by A, by the community of Rosewood and by the audience – due to their unwavering love and commitment to each other, despite the horrifying experiences they’ve had.
It’s an “Us Against The World” mentality that is so appealing when you’re a teen and are desperately searching for the people who will make you feel whole. Commitment to friendship is definitely a positive thing for young girls to be idealizing; however, it can get a bit dangerous when friendship is being held up as thing that will conquer all – even trauma and mental illness.
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The wish fulfillment doesn’t stop there – our Liars have the shiny hair and trendy clothes that teen dreams are made of. Even the careers they’ve been given in this flash forward – Hanna working for a major fashion designer, Aria taking on the world of book publishing – feel like a 13-year-old’s idea of a 23-year-old’s life. Emily, working as a secret bartender and popping pills on the side, is the only one who seems to be acting like a 20-something.
It’s also probably part of the reason why the men on this show have always felt like personality-deficient black holes with chiseled cheekbones – they can take on the shape of any teen’s ideal man. Yes, Ezra is now a published author, and Toby is building a house with his bare hands just like Noah from The Notebook – yet they still are equipped with only one setting: worry for their (ex-)girlfriend’s safety.
Despite being so deeply steeped in the Teen genre, with this flash forward the show seems to be desperate to get away from that. Tonally, you can feel it while watching. The dull dread the characters feel continues to creep up on you throughout the episode. It’s indicative of a turn towards noir, a genre that PLL has played with and paid homage to in the past. The distrust of authority and lack of belief in the justice system is a fairly mature topic for a show that has always been delightfully immature in its approach to horror and camp. But then again, Pretty Little Liars has never been known for its subtlety, so why start now?
As the season progresses, there are a lot of questions that are begging to be answered. Who killed Charlotte? Is she really dead? Why is Sara back, and what’s with the Jenna act? Who is Hanna’s fiancé? Where do the Liars purchase all of their designer funeral apparel?? We can only hope that the show doesn’t get too caught up in asserting its maturity and abandon the flashy moves that made it such a fun watch in the first place. After all, the Liars, despite the trauma they’ve experienced, can still drink a glass of wine and have a little fun – why can’t the show follow suit?
With the flashforward, past seasons' thrills seem to be replaced with a subtler, palpable feeling of dread. It’s a mature move for a show that has never delved too deep into the psyche of its characters – though not necessarily an entertaining one.