“Pretty Little Liars” has always been a disturbing teen drama, the kind that makes people say “It’s on ABC Family?” After all, it centers around four high school girls (Aria, Spencer, Hannah and Emily) solving the mystery behind the disappearance and possible murder of their friend, Alison. There’s also violence; multiple stalkers; and a memorable scene in which a character is knocked unconscious at the dentist and wakes up to find a threatening note wedged between her teeth. Despite the gore, it’s addictive for teens and older fans alike — the series does incredibly well for the network, and is always a top-tweeted show of the week.
But as the show starts its fifth season on Tuesday night, it’s time to question one of the creepiest aspects of the hit show that has increased over time: The underage relationships. When, exactly, is the series going to stop featuring male authority figures who unabashedly hit on or sleep with the female high school students?
If last season was any indication, not anytime soon. In fact, one of the main storylines since show’s pilot has been the complicated, scandalous relationship between Aria and her English teacher, Ezra (or Mr. Fitz, to the students he’s not dating). This past winter, Season 4 kicked things up a notch: Not only was it implied that Ezra once dated Alison — a 15-year-old girl — back when he was in college, but two other characters also had incidents with older guys — one a detective and the other a sober coach from rehab. Ick factor: exponentially increased.
Though it never explicitly mentions the issues of legality on the show, the writers carefully walk the line. The main characters are in their later high school years, and the series is set in Pennsylvania where the real-life age of consent is 16. Ezra and Alison “didn’t do anything,” and in fact she lied about her age when they first met at a bar; he dumped her when he found she wasn’t 21. Hanna was the one who kissed the detective who was flirting with her all season; after the kiss, he backed off. And while Spencer’s sober coach obviously had a crush on her, Spencer’s mom fired him when she found them curled up on the sofa together.
Still, the fact that all of those relationships progressed to that level in the first place: Ew. That’s not even including the Ezra-Aria relationship, which has always drawn backlash over the fact that he’s a teacher attracted to his student. (Sample perspective: “I can’t get behind a romance that, if consummated, would be statutory rape.”) That plot actually took a more sinister turn at the end of last season when it was revealed that Ezra actually knew exactly who Aria was when he met her — and made out with her — right before her sophomore year in high school. She didn’t know he was her English teacher; yet he targeted her because he knew she was friends with Alison, and he was writing a book about her disappearance.
Obviously, no show — especially a soapy teen drama — wants to deal with the minutiae of the legal issues of consent, as this is all make-believe. The executive producer noted that in Pennsylvania, there’s a law that makes it illegal for a 16-year-old to be with someone over the age of 21 if that person is a teacher. So, Aria and Ezra didn’t sleep together until he quit his job at the high school. Gross, but fine, they’ve got it on a technicality. The bigger problem is the horrible message this all sends to younger viewers.
That is, the message that high school students hooking up with male authority figures, such as teachers or police detectives? It’s great! Sexy, even. Their fans — the show heavily targets the female age 12-34 demographic — call them “Ezria” and hope and pray every season that the roller coaster relationship will reach a happy conclusion. “These two are like magnets who attract each other for hopefully the run of the show because I think they are soulmates,” creator I. Marlene King declared. Some viewers are even rooting for Hanna and her detective kissing buddy.
Even worse: Although forbidden/illegal romance is a common TV trope, it’s usually just a one-time storyline, maybe during sweeps. But the fact that “Pretty Little Liars” has decided to make this a frequent occurrence — enough that if you see an attractive, mid-to-late 20s man approach one of the characters, you just assume it’s only a matter of time before they make out — is just wrong.
Ultimately, the show has always leaned heavily into the idea of their characters falling for older guys: The girls’ nemesis, Jenna, dated a cop (seriously, Rosewood, Pa., has got to do something about its character tests for law enforcement). Meanwhile, Spencer has hooked up with two of her sisters’ older boyfriends.
And sure, maybe it’s dull for the writers to have the characters just date the boys at their high school. There’s no real drama there. But you know what’s more important than not being boring? Not being really creepy — hopefully, that’s where the show is headed in Season 5.