Pretty Little Liars (2010 – 2013) Review

Pretty Little Liars

pretty-little-liars(Left) Troian Bellisario = Spencer Hastings
(Bottom) Lucy Hale = Aria Montgomery
(Top) Ashley Benson = Hanna Marin
(Right) Shay Mitchell = Emily Fields

Based on a series of novels by Sara Shepard.
Executive Producers: I. Marlene King, Leslie Morgenstein, Bob Levy, & Oliver Goldstick

Part 1 – Who, What, Where, How, Why-Why-Why?

Pretty Little Liars is a murder mystery series based upon a series of books (under the same name) by Sara Shepard.

The show stars four girls: Aria Montgomery, Spencer Hastings, Hanna Marin, & Emily Fields. Four juniors in high school in the fictional, “everybody knows everybody” town of Rosewood. Because it’s a one-horse town, secrets, gossip, and hear-say can destroy reputations, marriages, and lives. Of course, the girls learn this first-hand when their fifth friend and ring-leader goes missing one night (assumed dead). The major suspects are the girl’s friends, so needless to say, they have a falling out.

The show begins a year after the death of their “friend” Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse–the only actress actually in high school) and suddenly, the group is reunited when a unknown contact–going by the alias “A”–begins harassing them with texts proclaiming to spill the beans. Of course, they all assume it’s each other, but then they suspect Alison might be back… that is until they find her remains.

Now the girls must find out who “A” is and what he/she/it wants or they’ll find themselves the next victims!

Part 2 – This show might be brilliant.

Shockingly, I don’t mean this sarcastically. Break down the show to its bare minimum and you have a genius premise.

  1. The girls are not detectives.
    This is a mystery show where the protagonists are not a part of the police force or CSI; in fact, they don’t even have parents or relatives that were even remotely capable of espionage. All the clues, all the red herrings, all the members of the A-team, it all works because the girls go about solving this mystery based on hunches and grudges.
  2. The girls have the memories of gnats.
    Every few episodes the girls will find some keepsake or memoir of Alison’s and this will spark a flashback of Alison (likely because her contract demands it), but the thing is, it’s always very telling information. For instance, a key suspect in Seasons 3 & 4 is a woman named Cece Drake, who Alison emulated and spent a great deal of time with. However the girls neglect this in favor of another suspect because they don’t remember her initially.500full
  3. Everyone knows Everyone.
    That means everyone is a suspect. Everyone would benefit from a piece of gossip. A lowly baker and a school principal may seem unrelated, but because it’s a one-horse town, there’s bound to be a connection between them somewhere.
  4. Everyone suspects the girls.
    The girls and Alison were a troupe, so they are the prime suspects. And in case you were wondering why the girls don’t tell the police they’re being harassed by a mysterious person… that’s the only reason they give.

So what are you left with? A group of inept girls with an endless list of suspects, which means a television program that can keep rolling until it stops making money. Sheer brilliance.

Part 3 – The Characters

Aria Montgomery – The Artsy One

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Aria is the artsy one. How do we know? She dresses in patterns & retro clothing. She reads books and writes poetry. She watches black & white movies–only black & white movies.
Her big secret is basic daddy issues. She discovers that her father is having an affair with his student, so she too has an affair with her teacher.

This is justified however, because the two meet in a bar before the school year begins, so they didn’t know they had an age difference and didn’t know they would attend class together, but for entirely different reasons.

The problem with this is how the hook-up is portrayed. Aria and Ezra (said teacher) meet in a bar. That’s all well and good and we can ignore her illegal age. What we can’t ignore is that, after exchanging several words with one another, we cut to Aria on the bathroom sink, wrapping her legs around Ezra as they passionately make-out.

We get it; it’s love at first sight, but this is the behavior of experienced sexual people, not virgins. It is firmly stated that Aria and Ezra don’t sleep together until after he loses his job–2nd season. This is further evidenced by the fact that, when Aria does sleep with Ezra for the first time, it’s a big deal because she is a virgin. So how does a virgin wind up in a bar bathroom with her legs wrapped around a guy she just met?

Of course, the age difference is an issue — pretty much the only issue (and it gets weaker with each subsequent season) — but their fights are an absolute delight. Although the two should only be about 3-4 years apart in age, Ezra is portrayed as an adult and Aria is the child.

For instance, a great fight occurs in the 1st season when Aria tells Ezra her parents aren’t acting normal. Ezra tells Aria that maybe she doesn’t understand everything about her parents and to consider that they have lives outside of being “parents,” to which Aria abrasively says, “You’re telling me you know my parents better than I do?!” And Ezra calmly explains that’s not the case, but she hasn’t known her parents their whole lives. But then Aria lashes out again, “So you’re saying I’m too young to understand.” And Ezra raises his eyebrows in amazement, “Aria, I guarantee, I did not say that.” And then she storms out.

Something that bugs me though is we’re never given sufficient reason for Ezra and Aria to be together. Here’s a list of all the ways Aria is the worst thing to happen to this poor man:

  1. She forces him to tell her parents that they’re in a relationship, despite working at the same school as her mother. This does, of course, result in his termination.
  2. Ezra cannot get a better job or get his Master’s degree because Aria wants to date him, so he must stay local.
  3. Aria cheats on Ezra (twice) and makes Ezra apologize for it — literally.

In fact, it is criminal that this guy suffers this much crap and doesn’t get any lovin’ until the 2nd season; he should receive the zen award for all this.

Hanna Marin – The Popular One

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Hanna used to be fat which is evidenced by the fact that she has a pillow stuffed into her shirt in every flashback. But now Hanna is skinny, shoplifting, and dating the virgin jock who Hanna continually tries to sleep with.

However, much of Hanna’s actions and character are contrary to what we’re told. For instance, we’re shown that Hanna is an expert shoplifter, borderline kleptomaniac, and this is how she gets her nice and expensive things. However, Hanna’s mother (divorcee) constantly reminds her they’re spending too much. In a matter of episodes in fact, the Marins go from riches to ruins, and Ms. Marin actually steals from her clients’ safety deposit box to keep them afloat financially.

But if Hanna isn’t spending money, but rather shoplifts, then what–pray-tell–are they spending money on?

And this is Hanna fat apparently.
This is Hanna fat.

Additionally, although the girls call Hanna the popular one, we only see her hang out with her boyfriend and her one minion, Mona. In fact, the only time popularity is evident is when she throws a party. Outside of that, she doesn’t have a posse or connections within the school, so it’s surprising she’s the “It” girl when she has all the makings of the “rebel.”

Her big secret? She shoplifted $400 sunglasses and was caught. Hanna’s mother, Ashley Marin (Laura Leighton) doesn’t want this getting out, as it could give a bad name to their family, so she seduces the town detective to keep it hush hush. Then the two continue their affair–seemingly unwillingly–because he holds this crime over her head.

Like you, readers, I was skeptical. I said, “Really? Reputation ruined by shoplifting? I think seducing the detective is far more nefarious,” but I rolled with it, that is until… Hanna commits grand theft auto and crashes into a tree and is not reprimanded at all.

Early in season 1, Hanna attempts for the um-teenth time to seduce her virgin boyfriend. However, when he withdraws this time, he implies that their relationship is ending. This causes her to steal his keys, flee the party, and drive his car straight into a tree. Everyone knows about this, but apparently no one cares. There’s no visit from a detective, no hubbub around the school, and they don’t even have to pay off damages–which would’ve actually made sense since they’re supposed to have money troubles.

Emily Fields – The Jock

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Emily is the star swimmer at Rosewood High. She’s amazing in the pool, but doesn’t let that go to her head. She’s extremely sensitive and shy. However, she fits in because she’s dating a hunk of a guy.

Her secret? She’s a lesbian.

Now when the show reveals she’s a lesbian to her parents, their reaction and natural progression of acceptance is very well done, but it’s because of the delicate subject matter (they must’ve gotten an A-list screenwriter contracted for those scenes as they’re very well done — despite the fact that tonally it has NO PLACE in the show). Outside of that, Emily doesn’t really add anything to the show.

Why?

While the show is intended for a younger demographic and acting is–on average–mediocre, the actress playing Emily Fields, Shay Mitchell, is just awful. She is not believable; not engaging; not acting. I’m sure she’s a lovely person, but her facial response to ALL forms of news (sad, surprising, malicious, fearful, inspiring, thought-provoking, etc.) is always the same: The Brow (see picture).EmilyFieldsBROW

If you’re looking at the picture, you’ll notice a crease right about her left eyebrow. That crease is Miss Mitchell’s idea of acting. If you want to know just how often this appears, I propose a Pretty Little Liars drinking game. There’s only one rule and it’s guaranteed to get you wasted: Every time Emily makes this dent in her brow, take a shot.

In fact, you may want to alter “shot” to “take a sip of beer,” but I can’t guarantee you’ll be any less dizzied.

The biggest problem is not with Emily’s character but with the actress. I don’t know her personal life, but I do know she’s not a lesbian. Not because anyone told me, but because she looks as though she’s about to puke each time she lightly kisses her girlfriend. This is made all the more apparent when she makes out with her boyfriend. She does this in the 1st season to disguise the fact that she’s a lesbian and the irony is, although the character is pretending, this is the only performance Mitchell gives that’s actually convincing.

This happens again in the 3rd season when Emily kisses her ex-girlfriend’s “cousin” (later learned, murderer). She kisses him on the stoop, readily making out with him, despite being a lesbian. This is all the more jarring because any time she has to kiss a girl it’s a quick peck or shot from the back of her head.

Look, people may ridicule James Franco’s acting, but at least his kissing is believable.

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Spencer Hastings – The Smart One

Spencer is A.

This information was provided to me by my wife and frankly, even if that colored my opinion, I don’t know how you could watch this show without seeing this from the get-go.

Spencer is the one with huge familial expectations to succeed and be the best. Her family is extremely wealthy and intelligent. They are the upper class; the elite.

The secret? That’s just it, Spencer doesn’t have any secrets that she doesn’t openly invoke upon herself. While you could argue that’s the case for all the girls, the remaining three suffer severe consequences. But does Spencer? No. Never. Especially in seasons 1 & 2, Spencer Hastings is clearly A.

Now, as I’ve said, given the ingenious nature of the show and how anyone may be a suspect, that may have changed since there’s significantly fewer clues that it’s Spencer in Seasons 3 & 4, but rest assured viewers, if you watch Seasons 1 & 2, the “A” is none other than the A-student.

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Rather than go episode by episode, let me point out some very obvious indicators:

  • Spencer is the only one that knows how to text from a blocked number, which she tells the girls.
  • Spencer knows how to pick locks and knows the code to access Radley (a mental institute–it’s a long story).
  • Spencer has the wealth and means to afford all the things “A” has.
  • Aria blatantly calls Spencer the “Queen of Time/Timing” and given that A’s texts always appear at the right time, this is a fairly obvious clue.
  • All packages from “A” arrive at Spencer’s household.
  • On the night that Alison goes missing, both Spencer and Alison were missing from the sleepover.
  • On the night of Alison’s missing-ness, Spencer has a flashback where she yells at Alison for threatening to tell her sister that she made out with her boyfriend and after Aly storms out, Spencer goes out after her.
  • Spencer is the only one that knows all the girls’ secrets. An example of this is when Hanna only tells Spencer (in Season 4) that she found a gun in her mother’s room. Hanna goes to a party where Spencer is and asks what she should do with it. When Spencer doesn’t give a good enough response, Hanna tells her she’s going to bury it outside. When she leaves to do so, the cops show up.
  • Video footage containing clues or details of Alison’s death only appears on Spencer’s computer.
  • Spencer has A’s hideout on her computer.
  • Spencer knows the answer to every clue and riddle and even defends A’s mind games, often calling them brilliant. A good example of this is in Season 4 when they receive a box that requires a magic trick to make it pop open. Spencer knows how to do it, but none of the others do. This happens time and again.
  • Spencer is always the first to choose a suspect and shift immediately when a new opportunity presents itself. In Season 1, Toby Cavanaugh is suspected–compliments of Spencer–but when someone floats the idea that it’s Jenna, she jumps to her as well (everyone’s a suspect). This time however, the girls even call her out on it saying, “You just said it was Toby,” but she manipulates her way out of it and the girls never question her flip-flopping again.

In addition to this, there’s an implication that Alison may still be alive and is only staying away because of “A.” In a non-flashback, Aly visits Emily and tells her that she’s on the right track to find A and is surprised that Spencer hasn’t figured it out yet. Although this line may imply that she’s just noting Spencer’s intelligence, Spencer’s intelligence is the best red herring. The audience does not suspect Spencer because she’s the stereotypical “smart” one, so people accept her ability to readily solve every puzzle from A.

Plus, when you have a show like this, that has been on for this long, any other character as the final “A” would only be disappointing. In short, “A” must be one of the four girls or the show will be a let down. “A” has already been lovers, ex-lovers, siblings, and best friends. If “A” is to be shocking, it must be one of the primary cast members. By that token, it’s simple process of elimination.

In addition to all these clues. Spencer has the motive for wanting Aly dead, or at the very least, gone. On the surface, Spencer motive is that she wants to keep her kiss with Ian (her sister’s boyfriend) a secret, so she kills Alison, but the subtext shows that Spencer really liked Ian and the secret video footage reveals that Ian and Alison were having their own liason. Simple jealousy is her motive for murder.

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As for her reason for being A?

Spencer was the dork, so without Alison, because the girls parted ways, she was the outcast; all alone. Spencer is always vying for attention from her parents, since they’re the stereotypical, “Success & Money is all that matters” and don’t show love or affection. By creating a false Alison, by creating “A,” Spencer is able to have a tight-knit group of friends again, that are absolutely co-dependent on her.

 

For more evidence of this, in Season 4, Spencer doesn’t get into her family’s college, which may mean that she needs to stay put, in Rosewood–fancy that. In addition, the current “A” is apparently Ezra, but this could clearly be a set up of Spencer’s since it was only in Season 4 that she started meeting with Ezra alone–trying to gather the dirt she needs to manipulate him (i.e. When she doesn’t get accepted to her college, she repeatedly visits Ezra for alternatives and help on her college applications).

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But I digress. If, by the show’s conclusion, Spencer is not “A,” then I’m convinced the whole town is in on her murder, since they clearly show that no one–not even Alison’s mother–is altogether upset by her death. Most people in the town agree, “She had it coming,” and there’s a number of foreboding statements from classmates and family members alike that seem to say, “Everyone wanted her dead,” or “This is bigger than you know.”

In any case, that would certainly explain why they’ve been unable to solve this murder or the murders of other people over the show’s run.

The Group’s Casting

You know, I’m no psychologist, but as a whole, the group has a pretty superficial friendship. To separate after the death of a friend–enemy or not–seems to imply that they were better off. Alison kept the girls close because she threatened to reveal their secrets (e.g. She flirts with Emily just to determine her sexual orientation). Now Alison did teach the girls to “get what they want,” but she never particularly “good” for/to them. The fact is, they often ponder, “Why does no one else care” in regards to finding Aly’s murderer, and frankly, I think the townsfolk are thinking the exact opposite, “Why do you girls care?”

In addition to this, while Sara Shepard may be a feminist, I find it interesting that all of the girls buckle when they lose their male counterparts (with the exception of Emily, of course). Now, maybe this is because “A” is presumed to be a woman and so they feel that their lovers couldn’t possibly be in on it, but that has been disproven time and again–especially in Season 3 which is really the exploration of all the boyfriends and their lives.

Lastly, maybe this is just a personal thing and frankly all the girls (strike Mitchell) grow on you, but the casting choices, or at the very least, the look of each of the girls is very odd.

In fairness, Hale is well cast as Aria, being a unique-looking lead, but her height inhibits her stage presence. She is significantly smaller than the other girls, so she is always dressed in HIGH-heels. I’m no socialite, but heels are for going out, not going to school.

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Hanna is perhaps the most upsetting choice. The character is supposed to be “zero to hero,” “nobody to somebody,” “the reject to the It-girl.” She’s blonde. Of course if she lost weight she’d be the It-girl. It would’ve been more interesting had Hanna been the brunette. She could’ve been the brunette in flashbacks and blonde in the present, showing how she not only adopted a piece of Alison, but also put forth work to overcome her past.

Emily… oh will it never cease. In my mind, reading the character of Emily makes me believe that, due to her shyness, she ought to be tiny and, due to her being in the spotlight on sports, she ought to be red-headed. The red-headedness adds to hair color diversity among the girls, but also shows how she doesn’t quite fit in with everyone else. Instead, they chose a girl who towers above the others and is, by far, the most exotic-looking. Now, while this may be an opinion, on a second look, what they did with Emily should succeed, but it doesn’t. The exoticness replaces the red-headedness, and the muscular frame is in contrast to her weak and sensitive demeanor (frequently named, “the weak link”) but it doesn’t work because Mitchell is limited. I don’t believe she’s weak, or rather, I don’t believe she believes she’s weak, but the dialogue from her mouth and other people keep trying to tell me otherwise.

Spencer is great, the only thing that would add to hair diversity and make her better for the role, especially if she does happen to be “A,” is if they made her a dirty blonde. You know, to mirror that whole, like-Alison-but-dark kind of thing.

Part 4 – Supporting Cast

In addition to Bellisario, the supporting cast is fairly solid, but there are definitely some nitpicks that go along with that.

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1. Ezra “Fitz” Fitzgerald

This is such a weird one because it feels like the writers were backtracking. Ezra is an English teacher–go figure–and he introduces himself in the first episode as “Ezra Fitzgerald,” but then for each subsequent episode over the next two seasons, he goes be Ezra Fitz, which left me thinking,”You abbreviated your last name? No, no, people don’t do that.” I couldn’t tell if they thought “Fitzgerald” was too obvious of a last name or if teens watching the show would think Pretty Little Liars was actually a period piece, or what. But regardless, Season 3, they finally bring it back up and it turns out he goes by Fitz to hide from his wealthy family and because he’s an aspiring writer… and that last name holds a significant amount of weight that he’d rather not succumb to. Eh, fair.

2. Ashley Marin

Hanna’s mom. The actress isn’t terrible, but I’d be giving undue credit to call her good. I mention her because she has one of the most complex characters and I’m not sure if it’s complex because it’s a good character or they never know where to take her. Ashley treats Hanna like an equal; she tells Hanna exactly what she thinks of her, how she looks for the day, and how to improve her complexion. She’s one of those moms that would support her daughter getting a boob job to make her more popular in school, but she does care a great deal about Hanna.

LAURA LEIGHTON
If the character was as superficial as she appears to be–money being important, hair being the marker for success, etc–then she would probably never dote on Hanna. This makes sense since you never see her interact with Hanna in flashbacks when she was fat. But the actress, Leighton, plays it so caring when Hanna has an issue that it makes it seem like perhaps she (Ashley) only recently adopted the role of “It-girl” herself, in trying to become like her daughter.

Now, this makes sense because Ashley is recently divorced, so perhaps she’s relearning how to be “hot” while her daughter is learning to be hot, so that she can start dating — I mean the ex-husband already is engaged (now married). This also explains their friendship because they grew together as a team. Plus, the two talk about how the father/husband left them, so now they have a stronger relationship. Okay, great good! … But then they mention that Ashley has always been hot. If Ashley has always been hot however, then that means that she probably has always been superficial and caring about her looks more than being a mother, but then that would mean that she and Hanna only came together in the divorce, but for some reason Ashley seems to understand her daughter better than she knows herself and that takes a significant amount of attention that Ashley would not have otherwise given to Hanna.

Like I said, she’s either the most complex or simply written to suit the writers’ needs for the episode.

3. Caleb Rivers (Tyler Blackburn)-caleb-caleb-rivers-30864566-500-360
Caleb is one of those guilty pleasures characters. The first time you see him as the “bad boy,” you’ll roll your eyes, but time and again, Blackburn kills it. He’s fun, has excellent timing, and charisma–it’s no surprise his presence warranted the producers to make a spinoff starring him in the lead role. Quite frankly, the lines he’s given (like 50% of the time) are atrocious. There’s a really poorly done break-up between Hanna and Caleb. “A” has just attacked Caleb’s mom, across the U.S., and Hanna can’t say anything or she fears what “A” might do next. So Caleb tries to get her to explain anyway, but her silence leads to him walking away in tears saying, “I’m done.” The script for this scene is awful. This is probably the worst written scene in the show–and that’s saying something, because many a time I find myself in the same position, with tears in my eyes watching scenes in the show and saying, “I’m done,” but alas, I’m still in it and I’ll probably watch his new show.

4. Toby Cavanaugh (Keegan Allen)

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This is one of those guys who looks like a Robert Pattinson imitation, but he’s actually got some talent–and while I won’t discount, the former, Pattinson’s has yet to be seen. Cavanaugh is fortunate enough to negotiate a haircut in Season 2 and onward, which is a welcome reprieve from Hollywood’s trademark “young boy” haircut (see following pics). And truthfully, Allen’s arc has definitely been one of those nice reprieves from the angst and drudgery of the liars. His past is pretty bleak (and twisted), having been molested by his sister and sentenced to Juvenile Hall for an unrelated crime. In addition, upon his return, he’s hexed as the prime suspect in Alison’s death. He drops out of school and doesn’t have any friends for awhile. Slowly however, he finds himself in the girls’ good graces, starts dating Spencer, and frankly, just tries to make it in this work-a-day world. He works construction, gets a car, and is trying to lead a normal life. It’s admirable. Also he’s ripped as all hell.

The nitpick with him however is his speech pacing. In the first 3 Seasons, his slow, somewhat dreary, mode of talking is fitting. He’s a kid robbed of his childhood with nothing going for him. He would run away, but he’s under house arrest, so it’s a wonder he doesn’t consider suicide. However, in Season 4, his mom dies, or died a while ago, I honestly don’t know where this came from, but suddenly he suspects foul play. So he has this whole B-story line where he attempts to uncover the truth, but this requires fast-paced interrogation. No offense to the actor, but given his story arc in the 4th Season, his speech habits only make him seem dense and dumb. He’s a pretty decent actor (emphasis on pretty), but he definitely fits a niche. And I’m not opposed to shows trying something new with their characters, but this was a shift he couldn’t handle.

(Now You See Me teen boy)
(Now You See Me teen boy)
(Super 8 teen boy)
(Super 8 teen boy)
(The Butterfly Effect teen boy)
(The Butterfly Effect teen boy)
(The Number 23 teen boy)
(The Number 23 teen boy)

Probably the most interesting thing about the supporting cast though is how strong they are–as actors–and yet how little they’re given. There are very few emotional scenes among the leading cast members, but the supporting cast is flooded with them. The problem is, they never show them.

For instance, at one point (Season 3) it is revealed that Ezra has a bastard son and he decides to go see the mother, but we never witness his phone call or hear the exchange. Instead he just leaves town with tears in his eyes.

Additionally, Caleb was abandoned by his family at a young age, but suddenly his biological mother tries to get ahold of him. Later, he returns to Hanna with tears in his eyes of how the conversation went.

I have a tough time determining whether or not I appreciate this. On the one hand, it would be out of tone for the series to show these scenes in a murder mystery, and because we don’t see them, the material’s POV remains from the perspective of the little girls. However, I partially believe they don’t show these scenes because they’re too much to handle. The series was eager to be over and done with Emily’s coming-out arc. Since then, no scene has compared to that kind of intensity and frankly, it’s tragic.

Conclusion

Pretty Little Liars is an ongoing television series and only time will tell what kind of a show it really is. Some actors are talented, while others struggle to show any range of emotion outside of perturbed. The formula is brilliant, but what will determine the show’s longevity is whether or not Spencer–or at least one of the girls–is “A.” While the clues are all there, the writing fluctuates so much that it’s hard to tell if the writers are doing this intentionally, or it’s a happy coincidence. One things for sure, it’s a marketing game, and they need DVD sales; the best way to ensure this is to give people a reason to rewatch the show–making one of the main girls “A” will accomplish this task, but maybe we’re just giving the creators the benefit of the doubt.

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Fin.

For more reviews, check out Derek Hobson’s Article Archive

2 Comments on Pretty Little Liars (2010 – 2013) Review

  1. I am both impressed and disturbed that you have devoted such painstaking analysis to “that show that keeps showing up in ads that play before the movie starts.” I think if I had to watch even one episode of this I would destroy my television, set fire to the carpet and kick a dog, eat a cat and poop on everything.

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