Review: Not Your Mother’s (Pretty Little) Liars

Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin follows closely on the heels of HBO Max's Gossip Girl (2021) and seeks to deliver the same hit of nostalgia as that teen classic reboot. But unlike the Gossip Girl continuation, Original Sin doesn't acknowledge its predecessor (at least not in its first three episodes). Instead, it seeks to tell a new story in a distinct universe.

And it sure is distinct. While the new show's opening song remains the iconic “Secret” by The Pierces, the song is remixed, offering a dense and spooky atmosphere in place of the original's jaunty accordion. The visuals of the opening are also entirely changed. We no longer see glimpses of the girls at the center of the show getting ready but watch as someone prepares for a multifaceted attack on the girls from a dark and dingy lair.

But that's just the opening credits. The first episode's first sequence immediately sets a much bleaker tone as we see a young girl beg for help from partygoers at a 1999 New Year's Eve costume party and go either ignored or literally pushed off. When the clock strikes midnight, she refuses to be ignored and jumps from the warehouse rafters to her death right in front of a group of five teenage girls.

The new show's title and this period piece opening might lead viewers to believe we're in for a prequel to the original. Instead, we jump twenty-two years forward to the present, where the girls who witnessed the suicide have become mothers. The rest of the first episode then does a lot of set-dressing work introducing the new core group of girls, the daughters of the five we saw in the opening.

Heirs to the Secret

Imogen (Bailee Madison) is pregnant and doesn't talk to her former best friend Karen (Mallory Bechtel) because she kissed Karen's boyfriend. Or he kissed her; stories differ. Tabitha (Chandler Kinney) is Imogen's movie-obsessed best friend who works at the local movie theater and aspires to become a filmmaker. Mouse (Malia Pyles) doesn't get out much, but that's ok with her; she loves her computers and is much better at making friends online than in real life. Noa (Maia Reficco) has an ankle monitor, has to report for regular drug testing, and participates in mandatory community service for an unknown crime, but she seems to have good relationships with her mom and boyfriend. Finally, Faran (Zaria) dreams of becoming a professional dancer even though she butts heads with the school's ballet teacher.

Far from allowing these young women some time to be introduced before drawing them into a dark and violent mystery, Original Sin‘s present timeline doesn't offer viewers a moment to catch their breath. Karen comes to Imogen's house to take some things that belonged to her and hands a letter she found taped to the door to Imogen's mom Davie (Carly Pope). It's a flyer for the party where the girl died in 1999, including a message about not forgetting the past. The next time we see Davie, she has slit her wrists in the tub.

The show then jumps ahead again, which seems in danger of becoming a crutch given the two flash-forwards in the first fifteen minutes of the first episode, this time just a month. Imogen is now living with Tabitha and her mother, Sidney (Sharon Leal), and decides that after a month of grieving, she's ready to return to school.

The girls soon start receiving anonymous texts, and after a series of attacks on Karen that point to them as perpetrators, the girls end up in detention together. It's only then that they become a group of friends, unlike the original Liars, who were friends before the start of the show, but very much like the characters in The Breakfast Club.

Side Order of Meta, Extra Obvious

That's far from the only reference, though. Like the original Pretty Little Liars (hereafter PLL), which regularly paid homage to classic horror films, Original Sin is deeply committed to showing off horror knowledge. The first shot of the show is from the point of view of the young woman who jumps to her death; simultaneously using and inverting the “killer POV” technique, a quintessential part of slasher films.

Less than halfway through the first episode, the show recreates a brief scene from John Carpenter's Halloween when Imogen and Tabitha stop to drop something off at Imogen's old home. The first episode includes another visual quoting of Halloween and the second episode includes an extended shot-for-shot recreation of the pig-blood dumping scene from Brian De Palma's Carrie.

Sadly, while the love for horror films in the original PLL could only be spotted by those able to recognize the visual quotes, Original Sin is like an annoying teenager with something to prove. Before the second episode's Carrie sequence, Karen and her identical twin sister Kelly discuss Carrie-ing Imogen well before the show visually quotes the film.

That calling out of a visual homage ahead of time is the least of the show's referential problems. One of the moms works at a law firm called “Strode, Prescott, Ripley,” the last name of the heroines of the Halloween, Scream, and Alien franchises.

Tabitha is done a disservice as a character by speaking almost entirely in movie titles. For example, in her first scene, she's discussing De Palma's Dressed to Kill and Body Double; shortly after that, she's wearing a Do the Right Thing sweatshirt.

But the show doesn't want to limit its references to films. An English teacher discusses The Scarlet Letter in class with a pregnant Imogen. And the ballet teacher speaks about the white and black swans of Swan Lake in the ballet class where Faran is the only black girl, as Karen aggressively points out.

Okay, We Get It…

This is the show's other greatest failure: an intense need to let viewers know it's on the right side of things. The school is plastered with signs about queer clubs and correct pronoun usage. There's also a climate change sign, and Tabitha calls Karen “a giant walking microaggression.” There's nothing wrong with a show being clear about its social politics, but the intense performativity of it in Original Sin is equally distracting and eye-roll-inducing.

Sometimes, and most egregiously, the references and the performative politics overlap. And again, this is a disservice to Tabitha. She calls out her film class teacher for not including any directors of color and only two women on a list of 20 classic films the class is to reinterpret with a short. She then goes further to say that she will be organizing a Jordan Peele double feature at the theater where she works. The entire scene reeks of “this is what the kids like, right?”

That desire to meet current trends and perceived (though nonexistent) demands of viewers extends to the show's look. The interiors are almost all a thick, sickly yellow, and the exteriors, which at least look better than the interiors, are primarily gray. It's just another show among many that have done away with bright colors to appear more prestige-y. But this is a reboot of a brightly lit, often poorly acted teenage soap opera; it doesn't need to look so dour.

The writing here also remains serviceable with some frustratingly on-the-nose moments, like when Imogen says, “my mom would hate that…. would've hated that.” But where the show shines, three episodes in at least, are its suspense sequences, mystery, and boundary-pushing.

These suspense scenes place the girls in close proximity with an unidentified character who resembles a combination of Michael Myers, Victor Crowley, and Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is name-dropped instead of allowing the image to speak for itself). The show's directors know how to build and release tension that will likely only become more prevalent as the season goes on.

What It's All About

The mystery, the heart of the original show, finally becomes central in the third episode. Imogen discovers the flyer her mother received and begins investigating what happened at the party, leading her to information about Angela Waters. This episode also brings together the moms for the first time, creating a dual narrative that may offer a more adult perspective to the show in future episodes.

The show's TV-MA rating also allows for some genuinely shocking boundary-pushing for a teen show. The rating means the violence can be, and is, much more visceral than anything in the original ABC Family show. In the as-of-yet only on-screen murder, a man's throat is slit, and blood sprays from the wound. Some of the attacks on Karen are surprisingly horrific: one is a dead rat in her bag, and another is a razor blade in her ballet shoe.

But most shocking is the language: Karen lets out an emphatic C-word in the first episode, which drives home how different this show will be from the original.

Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin is off to a rocky but promising start. Tabitha's character is infuriatingly poorly written, the show overall is awkwardly performative about its social stances, the color and lighting decisions are somewhat disappointing, and it takes a bit too long to get going. But now that the show will focus on the mystery of Angela Waters and the girls becoming friends, there's the promise for this to be a thrilling and touching TV season.

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Featured Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Kyle Logan studied philosophy and now constantly overthinks music and movies.

He’s a film and television critic and general pop culture writer who has written for Cultured Vultures, Chicago Film Scene, Castle of Chills, and Filmotomy. Kyle has covered virtual film festivals including the inaugural Nightstream festival in 2020 and the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival. Kyle is interested in horror films, animation, Star Wars, and Adventure Time, as well as older genre films written and directed by queer people and women, particularly those from the 1970s and 80s. Along with writing, Kyle organizes a Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd.