Monday (Jan. 3) marks the premiere of a programming block that I already like to think of as “The United States of ABC Family.” No, ABC Family isn’t premiering a patriotic new lineup. The network is actually showcasing its multiple personality disorder for the world to see, bringing “Pretty Little Liars” back for the second half of its first season and launching a fourth season of “Greek.”
When “Greek” premiered in 2007, the college-set dramedy felt like an odd deviation for ABC Family. There were one-night-stands, underaged drinking and intimations of very lightweight recreational drug use. Despite those elements, hardly trumpeted in the promotion, I stayed away from “Greek” because of what I thought the ABC Family brand meant.
I didn’t get that “Greek” was a turning point in that brand, opening the door for hits like “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” and “Make It or Break It,” as well as appealing short-timers like “10 Things I Hate About You.”
ABC Family made a full-on commitment to becoming CW-lite this past summer with the premiere of “Pretty Little Liars,” a commitment to teen-appropriate edginess that left “Greek” looking almost quaint and wholesome again in comparison.
“Pretty Little Liars” and “Greek,” those two layers of ABC Family’s evolution, have now been paired and the network has decided to additionally expose its dueling identities by putting “Pretty Little Liars” in the 8 p.m. slot and “Greek” at 9 p.m. The scheduling is obviously to the benefit of “Greek,” which finds itself in future-limbo and should get a small boost from “PLL,” but it also puts the show with murder, incest and teen sexual exploration in the family hour and leaves the softer, cuddlier show airing in the later hour. Yup. Somebody’s gotta take the Parents Television Council side in this nonsense and it might as well be me. [That last sentence was a joke. I’m not actually bothered that ABC Family has its two dramas in the wrong time slots in terms of content. In fact, if catching onto the strange affection for “PLL” in certain corners of the media gets “Greek” additional episodes? I’m on-board.]
If you’re a regular, or even an occasional, reader, you know that I’m a fan of “Greek,” while I didn’t much like “Pretty Little Liars” when it first launched.
Where do I find myself landing on the two shows as they return? Click through for a few thoughts on each. After all, it’s not like Sepinwall’s gonna be reviewing them…
Leaving aside the show’s cloudy long-term future, “Greek” is a show in transition, taking two big leaps from the events of March’s Season 3 finale, “All Children… Grow Up.” Since that finale, conceived as a possible series finale, established the post-grad fates of seniors Casey (Spencer Grammer), Evan (Jake McDorman) and Ashleigh (Amber Stevens), Monday’s premiere jumps first to graduation in May and then, without hesitation, to the next fall.
On one hand, the show still has Rusty (Jacob Zachar), Rebecca (Dilshad Vadsaria), Calvin (Paul James) and Dale (Clark Duke) positioned and starting their junior years, but there’s a process that has to be worked out to show how law-school-bound Evan and Casey, plus trend-spotting intern Ashleigh are going to remain a part of this universe. That process takes the better part of the first two episodes, as Scott Foster’s stuck-in-neutral Cappie almost becomes the posterboy for the series itself. Just as Cappie is bound-and-determined to remain in college as long as he’s having fun, “Greek” is bound-and-determined to retain focus on its core cast, even if some of the machinations to make that possible come across as slightly contrived and belabored.
I find it interesting — you probably won’t — that after 60+ episodes, “Greek” has barely expanded its universe at all. Yes, we’ve established a few beloved tertiary characters like Aaron Hill’s Beaver or Aynsley Bubbico’s Laura, but they mostly only pop up for unessential plotlines and comic relief (or, in the case of Kinsey McLean’s Trip, for unmotivated villainy). You’d be hard-pressed to think of a show that has lasted this long without introducing a few regular characters in mid-stream or losing a couple regulars in passing. On one hand, that’s a good thing, because it means that this is a full journey that we’ve gone through with this group of eight regulars. On another hand, though, the show has become a tiny bit insular. Our regulars have had extended romantic arcs with a number of characters, but as Season 4 begins, we’re still meant to be completely invested in the on-again-off-again-on-again-off-again future of Casey and Cappie, we’re meant to be reinvested in the latest incarnation of Evan and Rebecca and after breaking up with Grant, even Calvin has gone back to the relationship recycling plant and picked things up again with Zack Lively’s Heath, saving the show the need to introduce a new gay character. “Greek” has always been an incestuous little community, but the need to have characters return for third and fourth romantic servings is a problem if you happen to feel like the Casey/Cappie thing is played out or if you aren’t sure that Vadsaria and McDorman have all that much chemistry.
Don’t get me wrong: I still like Cappie as a character and I still like “Greek” as a show, but I’ve reached a point where I’d love to see them both grow up a little bit. The series has always been about the idea that college is a time for transition and transformation, but any and all changes have been baby-steps changes. Like Rusty is almost exactly the same guy who earned the nickname “Spitter,” but he’s gained exactly enough confidence to occasionally have sex with coeds who would have previously been way out of his league (I still miss Johanna Braddy’s Jordan, darnit). [The character who’s undergone the biggest change is Dale, which is probably as reflective of the show’s recognition of Clark Duke breakout potential than anything else.] For all of the pushing and pressing to get Cappie to think of his future and to choose a major and all of that other maturing stuff, he remains every bit as stuck at Kappa Tau as he ever was. “Greek” is similarly stuck in a world of Greek Week competitions, pranks and pledging, which is both reassuring and pleasant, but also limited. In the first two episodes back, I’ll confess I felt the limitations more than anything else. A lot of characters say good-bye in the first couple episodes, but nobody’s going any place, whether they’re leaving CRU or not.
That doesn’t mean I don’t like the show’s ability to mix up pop culture references that include nods to ripped-from-TMZ headlines, Shakespeare and, in the broadest reference a college show could possibly make, a party scene set to The Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” “Greek” isn’t a guilty pleasure for me. It’s a show I find cute and fully and distinctly low-pressure. I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve watched much of the series on long plane flights on my iPhone and in that context, or any other casual context, it makes for pleasant, gravity-free viewing.
[After Monday’s premiere has aired, check back at HitFix. I did a long interview with series creator Sean Smith where we discussed a number of my issues and curiosities about the evolution of the show. I think it’s a good interview, if you’re a fan.]
“Pretty Little Liars”
Why hasn’t anybody “rebooted” Encyclopedia Brown? Like if Nancy Drew and Ramona still have some resonance for a contemporary audience, why did we never get Zac Efron as an uber-brainy teenage gumshoe? [Box office returns for the Nancy Drew and Ramona movies actually do a pretty good job explaining why an Encyclopedia Brown feature would have tanked.]
The gimmick of Encyclopedia Brown was that he was young, but he was able to solve any crime because he knew pretty much everything about everything and he was gifted with immense curiosity and a helpful bodyguard in Sally Kimball.
I mention Encyclopedia Brown, because I wish that the image-obsessed, frizzy-haired tartlets of “Pretty Little Liars” would just invest a few bucks in hiring their nearest aspiring pubescent detective and setting him or her loose on the mysterious death of their childhood chum. If Encyclopedia Brown is unavailable, Harriet the Spy would suffice. Instead, “Pretty Little Liars” continues to limp along because its four main characters are perhaps the dumbest, least inquisitive characters on TV, constantly finding new ways to be surprised by things they should have been able to piece together episodes earlier if only they weren’t much more involved with illicit and uninteresting relationships.
To me, that’s the main problem with “Pretty Little Liars” and why I don’t really understand why I keep watching it: Spencer (Troian Bellisario), Hanna (Ashley Benson), Aria (Lucy Hale) and Emily (Shay Mitchell) are a bit bummed out Alison’s (Sasha Pieterse) murder and the unseen “A” who keeps texting them cryptic messages, but they mostly seem to care when their otherwise hum-drum lives are interrupted by A’s missives. On a scale of 1-to-10, the mystery of Alison’s murder ranks as maybe a 4 or a 5, while mooning over dream teachers, experimenting with lesbianism, slumming with the hired help and picking out the proper conceal or lip gloss all rank higher. There should be life-or-death stakes fueling “Pretty Little Liars,” but left to their own devices, Spencer, Aria, Hanna and Emily would be more concerned with prom.
Put a different way: When I watch “Pretty Little Liars,” I’m rooting for A. I don’t know if A is a man or a woman, young or old, but I know that A actually cares. And I know that without A, the show’s main quartet of pretty little liars would forget about the lies and just devote all of their attentions to the pretty. Because the law is useless — Bryce Johnson’s skulking cop was an epically bad device — and because the main characters don’t care, “Pretty Little Liars” is a passive show that’s steered by the interjections of an off-screen agitator. That’s not good writing, whether it’s the fault of the TV team or the source books. In lieu of an actual mystery that our heroines are solving (or even slightly curious about), the writers have to switch points-of-view to let us learn things ahead of Spencer, Aria, Hanna and Emily, which only makes them look stupider. Monday’s premiere, for example, builds to the girls drawing a grand conclusion that I’d accepted as almost a given since the pilot. Yes, I’m smarter than the characters on “Pretty Little Liars,” but I’ve also put a couple seconds of thought into their mystery. Asking viewers to be more engaged in a mystery than the characters on-screen is dangerous.
But really, can you blame the writers? After all, they have to spend lots and lots of time on the relationship between Aria and Mr. Fitz (Ian Harding). My twitter feed seems to indicate that some people are really into this relationship, even though the writers haven’t developed Aria in a way that makes her seem like anything other than a shallow high school girl, which makes Mr. Fitz into a pervert who relates better to children than he does to women his own age. Perhaps he and Mr. Daniels from “Life Unexpected” can arrange to share a jail cell on a future spinoff series. [ABC Family’s “The Dreamy Statutory Rapists”… Tuesdays at 8!] Aria has a backstory double-whammy since her parents are separated, a bit of domestic melodrama that hasn’t become interesting enough to explain why recognizable co-stars Holly Marie Combs and Chad Lowe were required to play the parts. Aria’s dilemmas seem to become more central each week, because they look thrilling when compared to whether or not Hanna’s going to have to sell her superfluous accessories on Ebay, whether Spencer’s sister will come home with a new boyfriend for her to “accidentally” seduce or whether or not Emily is feeling self-conscious about making out with Maya (Bianca Lawson) in any given week.
That last wheel-spinning subplot brings to mind a “crucial” — Things that are crucial for me need not be crucial for anybody else — “Pretty Little Liars” problem that I’ve had since the pilot. Benson and Hale are both semi-believable as high school students. Mitchell looks 25 and her on-screen love interest is played by a 31-year-old actress who looked too old to be playing high school students back in 1997 when Kendra made her first appearance on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” All look youthful compared to Bellisario, who is 25, but would pass more easily for 30 than for 18. [Key point: I’m not saying that Mitchell, Lawson or Bellisario look like they belong on “Hot in Cleveland.” They’re all perfectly fresh-faced. They just look much too old to be playing high school students, a problem that ABC Family’s casting department has done a very good job of dodging on other shows.] Pieterse, the only actress cast younger than her age, is producing a different problem. Alison is only seen in flashbacks and she can’t age, but Pieterse is a 14-year-old girl and she’s already looking older now than she did in the pilot. You ever notice how Future Ted’s kids on “How I Met Your Mother” don’t age? If they did, you’d get distracted.
It’s almost not worth pointing out that none of the four girls has an individual voice of any sort. They’re all capable of the occasional quip or catty put-down, but no matter how many times characters talk about Aria’s writing, she never sounds even vaguely literate and it similarly surprises me whenever somebody raves about Spencer’s grades or intelligence, since she’s never done anything smart on the show. I’m not sure that any of the four girls has ever been given a line of dialogue that couldn’t have been handed to another character without modification. [An easy contrast within this article would be “Greek,” where from the very first episode, Casey, Rebecca and Ashleigh all had distinctive voices and one would never accidentally give an Ashleigh line of dialogue to Rebecca, or vice versa. Those are characters defined by the way they talk and act, rather than which desultory love triangle the writers have penned them into.]
And you’re saying, “But ‘Pretty Little Liars’ is just a crappy guilty-pleasure teen soap/murder mystery. It’s not an AMC drama.”
To that, I reply: Tell me where I’m asking for too much. It’s a murder mystery, so I want the main characters to have a little agency and be active participants in the show’s main genre. That’s reasonable, right? I want to have four main characters with distinctive voices in the same way that no group of four teenage girls would talk this identically unless it were a running joke, a la “Heathers.” Since it’s not a running joke, that’s reasonable, right? I want the pervy high school teacher thinking about banging his student to be reminded that even if the age of consent in your particular state says its OK, there are other considerations. That’s not a biggie, is it?
Anyway… “Pretty Little Liars” only has a couple more episodes to become a guilty pleasure for me. You might not believe it based on the amount of programming I watch, but I’ve only got room for so much bad TV.
“Greek” and “Pretty Little Liars” both return to ABC Family on Monday (January 3).