A Cracked Foundation

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Pretty Little Liars was quite the pop culture phenomenon in its prime. It won awards, pulled in huge ratings, and developed an extremely loyal following. But like many shows before and after, it simply flew too close to the sun. The unnecessary number of episodes, the prolonging of a single mystery to fill extra seasons, and the underwhelming reveal of the final boss all contributed to the series making its way to a good number of “Worst TV Finales of all Time” lists. But the truth is, Pretty Little Liars always had more problems than people were willing to see before the final season ever aired. 

The show prided itself on being inclusive for its time with its token POC and LGBT+ characters, but they were often either sidelined, villainized, or killed off. Considering the majority of their A reveals were people of color or, in one case, the vilification of a trans person, the show clearly didn’t have a good handle on sensitive topics and characters, opting to instead use their struggles as plot devices.

Another glaring issue was the constant romanticization of inappropriate and predatory relationships, the most egregious being one of its main couples that spent multiple seasons as an illegal student/teacher pairing. But even disregarding the Aria and Ezra problem that plagued the show through its entire run, it’s not often discussed how every single one of the liars had at least one inappropriate relationship with adults when they were all underage. The show would either romanticize the relationships by not acknowledging the inappropriateness, or it would blame the girls for getting involved with grown adults as soon as it inevitably ended badly for everyone involved.

One issue that isn’t often talked about with PLL is the demonization of mental illness. The show begins with the murder of Alison Dilaurentis, best friend of the four main girls. Throughout flashbacks, we see who Ali was before her death–her vile and cruel behavior towards the people around her. Ali had a long list of people she’d bullied, including a few of the characters who are revealed to be A; the show never quite addresses the reasons for her doing this or the ramifications. They choose to instead redeem Alison and convince the audience she’s always been a good person at heart, while at the same time using derogatory language to describe characters who were deeply affected and traumatized by her incessant bullying and went down terrible paths as a result, the character of Mona being one of her main victims. 

Now, of course, I understand the appeal of this show. I was one of those people that binged it back in high school when season 5 was airing. I was highly invested in the mystery and believed the show knew what it was building towards. But in hindsight, I think the cracks were always there; they’re just much easier to see now that we have the full picture.