By Emily Yahr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2010; C02
We're in the middle of guilty-pleasure TV season, full of shows to secretly DVR, discretely pressing "record" while pretending to search for something far more respectable. And "Pretty Little Liars," a new teen drama on ABC Family, is fashioned to be one of those breezy, summertime series that, ideally, is enjoyed and almost instantly forgotten.
There's just one problem: It's actually kind of good.
Not good in an Emmy Award-winning, breakout actor, or record number of viewers kind of way. But good in a can't-stop-watching, must-find-out-what-happens, "Oh, my God, I'm an adult, why am I addicted to a show on ABC Family?" kind of way.
"Liars," about a group of high-schoolers trapped in a mystery surrounding their best friend's death, is unabashed in its attempts to be mindless entertainment. In fact, the response to the show seemed to catch even the network by surprise. Two weeks ago, after the third episode hit a series high of 2.7 million viewers -- for comparison's sake, the season finale of "Gossip Girl" drew about 1.9 million -- ABC Family announced an order of 12 additional episodes of the series, more than doubling the Season 1 total from 10 to 22 episodes.
Network name aside, "Liars" isn't very family-friendly at all. The show, based on a book series of the same name by Sara Shepard, centers on four 16-year-old girls, and starts one year after their best friend, Alison, disappeared; at the end of the premiere, Alison's body is discovered. The twist: The girls start receiving nasty messages from someone claiming to know all their secrets, who signs each message "A."
Thus the story begins, as the friends not only try to find out who is threatening to ruin their lives -- is it Alison (Sasha Pieterse), as the "A" would imply? But . . . she's dead! Cue freakout -- but also deal with the dirty laundry of their secrets. For Aria (Lucy Hale), it's a torrid romance with her much older English teacher, Mr. Fitz (Ian Harding). Hanna (Ashley Benson) grapples with an eating disorder and shoplifting habit. Emily (Shay Mitchell) has a boyfriend, but harbors a crush on her female neighbor. And Spencer (Troian Bellisario) hooked up with her sister's fiance.
The plot, however, is the element that sets "Liars" apart from its fellow teen soaps, such as "Gossip Girl" and "90210." Other such shows run through plotlines at breakneck speeds, or don't pay much attention to story consistency. Many times, it seems as if the writers are too busy trying to make one teen character do something completely outrageous for his age, or top the previous episode's craziest outfit. With "Liars," the story unravels slowly, but carefully, and doesn't sacrifice credibility in order to create a water-cooler moment.
Another "Gossip Girl"-type misstep that "Liars" avoids is letting the grown-up characters become too involved in the show. Sure, the adults in "Liars" have problems (boy, do they ever). Hanna's mom (Laura Leighton) is sleeping with a police officer so her daughter won't face shoplifting charges, and Aria's college professor dad (Chad Lowe) got busted for having an affair with his former student. Each issue, however, is seen through the eyes of the teen characters, and only in the context of how it will affect them.
The fifth episode airs Tuesday night, and it appears the show will just get creepier. The girls delve further into the mystery surrounding "A's" identity, and also face the consequences of their biggest secret of all: what happened the night they all played a prank on a classmate, only to accidentally injure his sister when the joke went awry.
But even when the subject matter gets dark, "Liars" doesn't take itself too seriously. And for those who eagerly but shamefully add it to the DVR every week, it looks like the mystery will continue through the fall, and beyond.
Pretty Little Liars
(one hour) airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC Family.