For a certain generation of TV watchers, the theme song for “Pretty Little Liars” scratches an itch like no other. The original series, which ran for seven seasons on ABC Family before the channel became Freeform, began each episode with the lilting melodies of the Pierces’ “Secret” over pristine images of the main quartet in their funereal finest, making winking eye contact with the camera in order to shush it. The stage thus set, TV’s first iteration of Sara Shepard’s novels was slick, if not exactly subtle.
Now, after two previous tries at spinoffs (“The Perfectionists” and “Ravenswood”) failed to launch, a new attempt at reviving the franchise has arrived in the form of “Original Sin.” Created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Lindsay Calhoon Bring of “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” the drama follows in its predecessor’s footsteps by establishing its tone straight from its evocative opening-credits sequence. Set to an unsettling remix of “Secret,” with an anonymous creep destroying smiling photos of the main cast on what can only be described as a classic “murder board,” “Original Sin” quickly asserts itself as a visceral nightmare of a teen slasher. Though 2007’s “Pretty Little Liars” eventually leaned harder into horror, 2022’s offshoot immediately embraces the genre. Think “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “Halloween” — or, more accurate to the actual plot, “I Know What Your Moms Did Last Y2K.”
“Original Sin,” premiering July 28 on HBO Max, first flashes back to the tail end of 1999, when the public suicide of Angela Waters (Gabriella Pizzolo) stunned the five girls who berated and ignored her throughout high school. Twenty-two years later, their daughters — pregnant Imogen (Bailee Madison), film obsessive Tabby (Chandler Kinney), ballerina Faran (Zaria), introverted Mouse (Malia Pyles) and defiant Noa (Maia Reficco) — come together to take down their sneering bully (Mallory Bechtel), a racist homophobe pointedly named Karen. It’s a good thing the first three episodes will be available all at once, since it takes the first two for the quintet to realize what’s obvious from the jump. Maybe it’s not Karen and her (slightly) meeker twin, Kelly, who are responsible for all the creepy things happening to them, but the hulking person who keeps popping up in a terrifying mask to demand justice for their mothers’ original sins. (Get it?)
“Original Sin” doesn’t appear to bear a direct connection to the first “Pretty Little Liars,” but shares plenty with it nonetheless, namely: a mysterious texting menace who goes by “A,” a malleable sense of time and space, and the world’s most evil and/or incompetent adults. But it also works hard to set itself apart in setting and tone. Pennsylvania’s suburbs are swapped for a working-class town more firmly in the Rust Belt; the aesthetic is dustier, with a sepia sheen coating every frame. The series more overtly evokes horror and teen movies of the ’80s and ’90s, prompting Tabby to point out every single parallel in what seems like every single one of her lines.
And yet: for all its extra exposition, “Riverdale”-esque stabs at relevant cultural references and “no, duh” revelations, “Original Sin” is as easily inhalable as the popcorn Tabby sweeps up at the local movie theater. Madison, Zaria and Reficco give particularly compelling performances as their characters fall deeper down A’s twisted rabbit hole, while Bechtel makes the most of playing two different brands of terrible teen.
As long as you don’t think too hard about the mystery’s logistics, the show provides enough intrigue to keep your attention through the next episode. It might sound basic, but enough reboots have failed on that front to at least make “Original Sin” a refreshing outlier.