For anyone who’s ever dreamed of watching “Prime Suspect” reenacted by Bratz dolls, ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars” ought to seem like manna from heaven; for all others, it should register as merely another lurid prep-school meller to add to the pile. But however unconvincing its humorless crossbreeding of R.L. Stine-style horror with “Gossip Girl’s” mean-girl anthropology, this adaptation of Sara Shepard’s young-adult novel series should still hook a healthy high-school-aged demo with its high gloss and alluringly age-inappropriate behavior.
For a series that centers entirely around a murdered teenage girl, “Pretty Little Liars” is strangely devoid of either heavy emotion or dark humor. (And when watching, it’s hard not to think of the late, lamented “Veronica Mars,” which had plenty of both.) And for a family-channel series, “Liars’?” attitude toward teenage debauchery seems to unambiguously come down on the “pro” side. Diving headlong into the meat of the story, a quick prologue shows a quintet of 15-year-old prep-school girls on what appears to be an unsupervised drunken camping trip on which their group leader, Alison (Sasha Pieterse) mysteriously disappears.
After a fast-cut to one year later, Allison is still missing and presumed dead, though scarcely missed by her friends, who pass most of their time staring meaningfully into the distance and cryptically alluding to various past scandals for the series to later reveal in its own sweet time — after a mere hour, the series already feels as teasingly inaccessible as a midseason episode of “Lost.”
One by one, the four remaining friends begin receiving text messages and letters from a mysterious stranger who signs off as “A,” making even more cryptic allusions to still more secrets. Soon enough, Alison’s body is discovered, and while leaving her funeral, the foursome all open their phones to reveal the same ominous epistle: “I’m still here, bitches.”
Appropriately for a pilot with so many threads, there’s little time invested in establishing basic character before delving into their particular peccadillos — in fact, evident protagonist Aria (Lucy Hale) has scarcely been named before she’s seen confronting her father about his philandering past and initiating an illicit affair with her new English teacher (Ian Harding, a mere three years older than the thesp playing his 16-year-old paramour).
Rounding out the rest of the pack, Hanna (Ashley Benson) is the newly gorgeous former chubby girl with a penchant for alcohol and shoplifting; Spencer (Troian Bellisario) is the smart girl with sibling-rivalry issues; and Emily (Shay Mitchell) is the athletic girl, who’s not adverse to experimenting with pot and her sexuality.
Production values are solid and well-varnished, with an angsty-pop soundtrack that should resonate with its target audience.