It’s true: ABC Family is not a channel especially known for its award-winning shows. And perhaps “Pretty Little Liars” does not from the outset seem a show of particular note: its source is a series not noted for its literary merit, and relegated to the teen section alongside series like Gossip Girl and The Clique.
Still, award nominated though it may not be, Pretty Little Liars offers certain aspects that have eluded many other television shows, specifically those whose demographic is largely teenage: for one, Emily’s struggle to find her sexuality and her subsequent love interests have very rarely felt minimized. There are relevant arguments to be made for the fact that her love interests—and possible “endgame” relationships—have shifted more frequently than the other characters, but she has always felt like a genuine character outside of her sexuality. Her coming out story was incredibly important, and functioned as one of the most crucial acts during the first half of the first season.
Even arguably, more important s the fact that the storylines that followed were often irrelevant to her sexuality; there were storylines relevant to her dating life, and the sex depicted between her and her girlfriend Maya onscreen felt by no means unsatisfactory placed within the context of the onscreen sex between the other girls’ boyfriends, but her sexuality never became her singular, most defining characteristic.
There became some debate more recently regarding Emily’s storyline when she began, seemingly, to return a boy’s interest in her, after someone very close to her had died. It’s not for no reason that there was concern over a trope that had been used, time and time again, in the representation lesbians, though Emily was still reeling with a grief that she seemed able to share only wholly with this boy, who also professed a strong connection with the victim. This arc concludes with her shoving a knife into his chest and killing him in self-defense: quite literally, Emily stabs this frustrating, historically repressive trope, and keeps herself alive on her own terms.
The fact of the matter is that the backdrop of the TV show revolves around someone—or perhaps multiple someones—who initially begins by the show by sending threatening texts regarding secrets they had told no one but their now-dead friend, and progresses into a psychotic stalker capable, seemingly, of existing anywhere at any time and quite possibly of murder. And it is partly for this reason that, in the end, the storylines of the individual characters give way to the storyline at the heart of the show, which belongs to four girls trying desperately not only to come out on the other side sane but to discover the identity of their torturer and stop him, or her, or them.
At the very center of this show, then, are four best girl friends who may, in the end, be able to rely only on each other. At every turn, the possibility of betrayal looms large—in the form of their friends, significant others, the town police, and even their parents. Though they have offered up pieces of their secret to other people, at the end of the day they are the ones with all of the knowledge, capable of sharing it only between each other—both as a mean of protecting other people and of protecting themselves.
At the core are four girls who are all very, very different people, and who love each other very, very genuinely. This is not the story of frenemies; this is not the story of rivals, or competitors, or “catfights.” This is the story of four girls who may be each other’s only hope, and who would—and have—gone to extreme lengths in order to protect one another. And finding that on TV is, unfortunately, a startling kind of treasure.