Once upon a time in a land far away, AfterEllen boss Trish Bendix told me I was going to recap Pretty Little Liars and I was like, “I mean, OK, I guess?” because my understanding of the show based on what I knew about the books was that four teenagers were going to look fetch and try to cover up their shameful shenanigans, one of which was lesbianism. And the lesbian ended up with dudes in the end anyway. The show got its claws in me in the finale when the Liars read their first group text from A (“I”m still here, and I know everything!”), but I held it an arms length away because I was sure Emily was going to go the way of the penises before the season was through.
Emily fell in love with a girl. She came out. And I will never forget the night that showrunner Marlene King asked on Twitter: “How would you feel about Emily being sexually fluid, like she was in the books?” The response was swift and less than half an hour later she tweeted that she agreed, that Emily had worked so hard to come out as gay, and that confident gay teenagers were underrepresented, and the show was committed to diverging from the book path for her. I couldn’t believe it. I straight up asked her a couple of weeks later in an interview if she promised Emily was going to remain a lesbian, and she did promise. I’m still shocked about it, years later, if you want to know the truth.
Over time, Pretty Little Liars morphed into an epically gay show. Emily dated more girls than every other Liar combined. Paige McCullers was introduced for what was meant to be a three-episode arc, and she grew into Emily’s main squeeze. We’ve been inside Rosewood’s lesbian bar, we’ve seen a revolving door of lesbian and bisexual guest characters, we’ve been treated to special shouts out inside the episodes from all of the writers, and every single actress has come out in vehement support of LGBT rights in the real world. I have never, in all my years and years of writing about TV, been as perpetually delighted and surprised by a TV show as I have been with Pretty Little Liars.
It pains me, then, to have to run it through the Fandom Fixes wringer, but it’s not fair to ignore it just because it’s my favorite. In my mind, there are two Pretty Little Problems with my most best TV show:
1. The Ezra Fitz Problem
Ezra has always been a complication for Pretty Little Liars, and I’m going to get skewered for saying this, but in the beginning, his relationship with Aria wasn’t a real problem for me. She was 17 and he was just out of college and their relationship wasn’t sexual while he was her teacher and the show went to great lengths to make him as virginal and innocuous as possible. The reveal that he was (probably) “A” was shocking and really exciting and very ballsy, and it amped the creep factor up to like a zillion. Unfortunately, the writers miscalculated; they intended to walk back his Big Bad status by having him confess to spying on the Liars and Alison, but only for the purposes of writing a true crime novel — and then he took a bullet in the chest to keep them safe.
But here’s the thing: The fact that he knowingly got into a relationship with a teenager, over whom he was going to have authority, for the purpose of exploiting her and her friends for information, and then watched as they were tortured for years isn’t really something you can redeem — even if his love for Aria turned into something as true as the sun. Their relationship is only workable if Aria had complete autonomy and all the facts, and she has the opposite of that.
It bums me out so hard to say it. Ian Harding is one of the best LGBT allies and lovers of the planet earth and fundraisers for heroic causes of any actor his age in Hollywood. He has used his platform of fame for only good stuff. Maybe Ezra has a twin.
The Black Woman Blues
Pretty Little Liars has introduced three recurring black characters onto the show — two of whom were queer — and offed all three of them. When Maya died, I took a deep breath and said, “Whoo boy, that nailed a bunch of historically damaging tropes, but this is a show about teenage girls getting murdered. We knew that going in. Let’s watch it play out.” And Maya’s death actually did become a season-long mystery that changed Emily’s life forever. And at no point has the show ever backtracked on Emily’s deep, abiding love for Maya. Cousin Nate had to go too, of course. That was part of the mystery.
But killing Shana this year? It’s starting to feel like we’ve stepped into dangerous territory, especially because there were loads of straight white character that could have been used to explain the mystery of the most recent A. Cece Drake, Jenna Marshall, Lucas Gottesman, Mike Montgomery, Melissa Hastings, Jason DiLaurentis. (I love them all! It pains me to say they should die, but straight whities are a dime a dozen on television!)
Shay Mitchell is a woman of color and so is is Janel Parish, and they play gay and gay-adjacent — and I am so grateful for that, but it still kind of squicks me out that straight white dude Ezra is going to survive being shot in the chest by a gun, and queer black woman Shana is going the way of the queer black woman (and her pyscho ex-boyfriend) who came before her because she fell a couple of feet off a stage.
One time? Incidental. Two times? Eh, who hasn’t been stalked by an ex’s fake cousin. Three times? Kind of a problem.
Whew, OK. That’s it. That’s where I am with Pretty Little Liars, which is a revolutionary and remarkable show that fills a longing in my heart I can barely explain, but also a show that has a smart, socially conscious writing staff that sometimes missteps. It shouldn’t be too hard to find Ezra something to do that’s not Aria (he was great scheming with Mona!) and introduce another black woman to the show. I hear Britne Oldford isn’t doing anything these days, and she’s already got a history with Caleb. Just sayin’.