It was a case of art imitating life at Saturday night’s Hollywood premiere of “The Perfectionists” — Freeform’s “Pretty Little Liars” spinoff about a scandal involving college students striving for excellence by any means necessary.
The TV show’s debut was coincidently preceded by a real-life college scandal involving Hollywood celebrities who allegedly didn’t let a little thing like the law get in the way of their children’s educational ambitions. The irony was not lost of the Freeform’s president Tom Ascheim, who welcomed his cast to a screening of the pilot episode on Friday night at the Hollywood Athletic Club as guests snacked on popcorn and pie.
“We have the best marketing and PR team in the business, but even I was not sure that they would be able to create a college cheating scandal this big to launch our show,” he joked. “But we’re very grateful that they did.”
Afterwards, Ascheim told Variety, “To be be serious, the whole theme of the show is about the internal battle for children who have been made to feel that they’re supposed to be perfect. In truth, what we see in the college scandal is the externalization of that same feeling the parents have, which is tragic.”
The show’s star Sasha Pieterse, who played the same character on “Pretty Little Liars” for all seven seasons, reflected on the main difference between the two scandals: “Nobody died,” she said, referring to the “PLL”-style murder mystery that also fuels her new series.
“We’re in a time right now where any form of corruption is being brought to the surface, from college to the environment,” Kelly Rutherford, who plays the wealthy, controlling mother of a spoiled, cheating college student, told Variety. “We’re seeing examples of things that we ourselves might even be tempted to do for our children. But I think you go: ‘OK, wait a minute,’ you know? We all have moments like this in our lives and we have to make those decisions.”
But Rutherford was able to find the humanity in a character who relies on spying with computer surveillance to keep tabs on her son. “There are many different types of mothers in the world,” she said. “This particular character wants to control. To which I say: What mother doesn’t want control? She may be going to the extreme. But she wants her kid to excel. Where is the fine line between pushing them too far?”
That is exactly the kind of question that executive producer I. Marlene King wants viewers to ask themselves. “When I created ‘Pretty Little Liars,’ it was like a summer beach read: It was about friendship and romance and murder,” she told Variety. “I admit that: It was just fun. We didn’t set out to change the world. But my attitude about this show is: We do want to change the world. We want to tackle topics like this idea of perfectionism. I hope it engages fans on a deeper level than just: Whodunnit?”
In fact, it’s a story that has already made plenty of headlines. “I thought about it on the way here,” King said of the scandal. “In the way that the original ‘Pretty Little Liars’ tapped into the universe when Twitter was just starting and social media was becoming a part of the zeitgeist, this show got lucky again with this idea of perfectionism — meaning your parents bribing schools for you to get into.
She continued, “It’s crazy, but it’s the world we live in. And I hope that we can speak to people who feel like they have to be that person who gets into USC. There are thousands of great colleges in this country. If you feel like you have to get into one and cheat or your life is over? We’re about shining a light on the fact that that’s not how it needs to be. Young people need to learn that you can fail. It’s OK. You’ll pick yourself up and you’ll survive.”