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TV Review: ‘Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists’ on Freeform

With:
Sasha Pieterse, Janel Parrish, Sofia Carson, Sydney Park, Eli Brown, Kelly Rutherford, Hayley Erin, Graeme Thomas King.

Nearly every scene in “Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists” tells one specific story: This is a series that very much wants to be “Pretty Little Liars: All Grown Up.” It’s an interesting choice for a spinoff, considering the fact that the final season and a half of “Pretty Little Liars” featured a five-year time jump in order to be exactly just that, a more mature version of the series. But that transition was relatively easy to swallow, because after all the abuse and trauma the Liars (as well as everyone in their general orbit) suffered at the hands of every possible version of omniscient cyber tormentor “A,” those characters seemed to have already mentally aged a long, long time ago.

This series doesn’t have those years of torment plaguing its new characters. But it really wants its audience to know just how mature it and its characters are.

Like “Pretty Little Liars,” “PLL: The Perfectionists” is adapted for television by I. Marlene King from a novel (“The Perfectionists”) by author Sara Shepard. The book wasn’t a “Pretty Little Liars” spin-off, but in making it so for television, King provides a hook for the original series’ devoted audience to follow along and become invested in these new characters. The hook is the series’ two leads, the scene-stealing anti-heroes (and sometimes outright villains) of “Pretty Little Liars,” Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse) and Mona Vanderwaal (Janel Parrish). The end of “Pretty Little Liars” saw Alison’s redemption arc, which continues here in with her role as the de facto protagonist. Mona, on the other hand, ended that series in France with the series’ two Big Bads imprisoned in her basement “Dollhouse,” a major series-ending plot point that this spin-off humorously references as an aside during Mona’s official introduction. (That’s that patented “Pretty Little Liars” insanity at work.) While Alison has long lost the edge she once had, anyone familiar with “Pretty Little Liars” will be happy to see that Mona continues to be just as shady, shifty, and scenery-devouring as she ever was. Only now, it’s in a more sophisticated, adult way. This show is set at a college, after all.

And in a major win for the series, it films on location in Portland, Oregon, meaning long gone are the obvious backlot sets and green screens that “Pretty Little Liars” had to work with for its entire run.

The college aspect of the series is a key component to why “PLL: The Perfectionists” feels like it’s trying so hard to look mature. The Shepard novels are actually teen-centric, set at Beacon Heights High, which becomes Beacon Heights University for the show. But After about six seasons of viewers questioning the teen girl-adult male romantic relationships in “Pretty Little Liars, it makes sense that King would just want to bypass all that drama and make sure these characters are at least 18 years old. But like most high school-set series are so different from the a”ctual high school experience, “PLL: The Perfectionists” is essentially a college-set series for a young audience that has yet to have any actual college experience.

Beacon Heights’ student body are the best of the best — the titular perfectionists — who know nothing other than exceptionalism and pressure. The series focuses on another clique: There’s aspiring fashion designer/hacker Ava (Sofia Carson); the daughter of the potential next President of the United States, Caitlin (Sydney Park, the standout of the young cast); the gay cello prodigy Dylan (Eli Brown). All three are technically friends, all connected by Nolan (Chris Mason), big man on campus, possible sociopath, and someone who has no problem blackmailing these people into pretending to be his friends. Nolan is untouchable, as the son of the university’s founder, Claire Hotchkiss (Kelly Rutherford, who challenges Janel Parrish for most entertainingly over-the-top performance of the series). In fact, the Hotchkiss name is a big one in this series, as Hotchkiss Technologies fuels the Big Brother-esque security system that keeps Beacon Heights University “the safest campus in Oregon.”

That is, until one of them ends up murdered, the first murder in the small college town’s history. Every character has a motive, so the mystery begins. And just like “Pretty Little Liars,” “PLL: The Perfectionists” is far from subtle with its pop culture and literary references and inspirations — and far less in-depth than “Riverdale,” a show that’s success proves there is still room for more of any show like “Pretty Little Liars,” is on that same front — so it’s no surprise that the novel Alison teaches early on (in a college class) is Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit, “And Then There Were None.” In a touch of self-awareness, however, one of the series’ characters says, “The author wasn’t subtle.”

As easy as it may be to forget, “PLL: The Perfectionists” isn’t the first “Pretty Little Liars” spin-off. During the original series’ fourth season in 2013 came “Ravenswood,” a series that brought the supernatural and direct horror elements (instead of just references) into the universe. Canceled after one 10-episode season, “Ravenswood” only muddied things up for “Pretty Little Liars.” “PLL: The Perfectionists,” at the very least, succeeds in being a spin-off by taking place after the “Pretty Little Liars” story is officially over, while “Ravenswood’s” initial flaw was in spinning off a character who was in a serious relationship with one of the main Liars, then expecting the series’ rabid audience to be invested in his strange will-they-won’t-they relationship with a ghost girl. (“Ravenswood” was wierd on multiple levels.)

A character like Janel Parrish’s Mona, on the other hand, is a natural choice for a spinoff. Mona was like an oasis in a desert on “Pretty Little Liars.” Even when it became increasingly more convoluted, there was never a dull moment from Mona. Here, that particular brand of chaotic charm is necessary in order to keep this series interesting. “Pretty Little Liars” had something special with the Alison character when she only appeared in flashbacks, revealing to the audience just how much “mean girl” didn’t even begin to describe her personality. However, in redeeming the character, the series also defanged her, and even though “PLL: The Perfectionists” follows her as she attempts to make a fresh start and help these “kids” with the healing power of education, that earnestness is not the reason “Pretty Little Liars” succeeded, and it can’t possibly sustain “PLL: The Perfectionists” on its own either.

Unlike “Ravenswood,” however, “PLL: The Perfectionists” is more in line with the actual spirit of the original series — though this series leans more into tech where “Ravenswood” leaned into magic — which will at least make it worth checking out. “Pretty Little Liars” fans have already invested at least 160 episodes-worth of their time into these characters’ stories, after all. What’s another 10?

Mystery-Thriller, 60 mins. (10 episodes; premiere watched for review.) Premieres Wednesday March 20 at 8 p.m. on Freeform.

TV Review: 'Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists' on Freeform

Production: Executive producers: I. Marlene King, Leslie Morgenstein, Charlie Craig, Lisa Cochran-Neilan.

Cast: Sasha Pieterse, Janel Parrish, Sofia Carson, Sydney Park, Eli Brown, Kelly Rutherford, Hayley Erin, Graeme Thomas King.

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