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Pretty Little Liars

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MTV’s Scream the TV series is a tremendously white affair. This is important to remember considering how this television adaptation of the iconic series of self-aware late-90s slasher films exists at a potentially unique intersection of some notably un-unique genres. Small screen teen drama and big screen horror have unmistakably hooked up before to produce an array of hybrid monstrosities and gems, most notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, more recently, Teen Wolf. But the spirit of this cliche cocktail has been present throughout young people television for some time, from story arcs of One Tree Hill (“Nanny Carrie” anyone?) to pretty much all of Pretty Little Liars. Even as far back as 1996, when the original Scream was released to theaters, the success of the film relied heavily on the appeal of Party of Five darling Neve Campbell. Subsequent films made sure to roll out Teen Choice and MTV Movie Award mainstays, Tori Spelling (in 2) and Scott Foley (in 3) to name a few, to reinforce the intuitive relationship between youthful melodrama and horrific violence, cheerleaders and bloodshed. But while MTV’s new series doubles down on this style of storytelling with a familiar branding that should signal the looks and smarts that make this sort of thing worthwhile, Scream the TV series does a great job of reminding us of how homogenous those looks can be in this space.

Twenty-five years ago Beverly Hills 90210 didn’t wow anyone with its diversity. The stark lack of racial representation was sadly par for course with television of the time and forced a generation of non-white fans to simply suck it up and accept implicit rejection from the fictional upper-class world of the Walshes et al. (With exceptions: Remember that time Brandon set his white privileged eyes on a young Vivica Fox but her family was basically chased out of town before he could find out how Jungle Fever ended? Or when Cress Williams, as D’Shawn of course, threatened to blackmail Brandon but in reality just wanted help with his homework? Or when Brandon . . . wait Brandon Walsh apparently had a thing for Black people.) But the exclusion of significant people of color readily spread from Beverly Hills to Melrose Place to Capeside to the O.C. throughout the 90s and early aughts. Film wasn’t much different and hasn’t been throughout the history of Hollywood but televisions glowed brightly in homes, each and every day, intimately raising a generation of multi-cultured Americans. When One Tree Hill, a show predominately about basketball in its initial outings, unveiled Black characters consistently speaking on consecutive episodes, many rejoiced. Tokenism goes a long way in this space of teenage angst, perhaps because of the monopoly white youngsters have had on televised emotion for so long. 2008’s rebooted 90210 showcased Tristan Wilds as an adopted Black son in the modern analog to the Walshes, as if to explicitly say that it was not 1990 anymore. Couple this with Bianca Lawson’s multi-decade career of being a Black teenage girl with feelings everywhere from Bayside to Sunnydale to Mystic Falls to Rosewood, and you may begin to think that the bare minimum of non-white representation started to mean something to creators. That it started to mean, at least in 2015, television (and film) should look more like its audience.

1997’s Scream 2 was an exceptional film, if only because it was a film about film. It was about how a horror or slasher movie should play out as much as how it actually does play out. Subversion of these established tropes became the point of the film as well as the goal of the characters that wished to survive. Randy Meeks, played by Jamie Kennedy, consistently presses his wry wit and knowledge of the genre against the fourth wall in all sorts of winks to the audience but with a very real desire for self-preservation. That’s overt. What is more subtle but just as significant is how each and every Black person in the film flirts with the same sort of self-awareness. From the very beginning, Jada Pinkett’s discomfort during the viewing of the movie-within-the-movie (or sequel-within-the-sequel “Stab 2”) is simply due to how threatened and unsafe every person of color should feel in these situations. She and her date Omar Epps eventually and predictably die, but Duane Martin says it explicitly later on in the film, “Brothers don’t last long in situations like this,” before he dies as well. The idea here is that these Black characters are tokens, not simply to any liberal sensibility of the time, but of the form of film itself. Staples of the genre. But Jada Pinkett, Omar Epps, and Duane Martin (which admittedly is a pretty impressive list of alums) aren’t left out of the uniquely introspective nature of the Scream franchise. They exhibit a keen understanding of their status as minorities and their eminent danger in this world, but their existence is nonetheless indispensable to it.

Scream the TV series has seen fit to dispense with any semblance of racial inclusion. Albeit, this type of “why ain’t there enough x in this” argument always has its detractors, rightfully so. The show is exploring a queer teen character and admittedly there is in fact a person of color in the group of young actors. Asian American actress Brian Tju. It’s not much of a spoiler in a series centered around mass murder to acknowledge that her role is short-lived, but, after five episodes as of this write up, it’s more than fair to acknowledge this series to still be severely lacking in color, amongst other things. And it’s unsettling, to say the least. The bland characterizations leave a lot to be desired, but the Scream branding implies something purposeful is afoot. We find Randy Meeks’s television counterpart fairly easily in the character of Noah Foster, played well enough by John Karna. But every other character seems to miss the spot in their attempts at pantomiming the usual suspects: horny jocks, the vapid mean girls, the reluctantly popular belle of the ball, the bad boy, etc. The familiar face of Bex Taylor-Klaus, though always welcome, does nothing to repair the missteps of casting and writing.

Nonetheless, its hearty lineage alone would invite an interpretation of the whole series as satire, just as MTV’s commitment to making this show a reality perhaps hints at some parody. Each time the big bad texts the main character Emma, there’s no way any respectable tween of the past decade would not immediately conjure up thoughts of A’s ominously threatening texts to the Pretty Little Liars set. But time and time again the mark is missed for an effective satire of any sort. And it’s been nearly 20 years since the Scream franchise actually had anything left to subvert or add commentary to. The horror beats of the new series don’t hold up at all against what we consider televised horror to be in 2015: not nearly as artful as Hannibal, not as charismatic as American Horror Story, and decapitated heads are so Game of Thrones season one. So why resurrect Ghostface in 2015 (notably without the actual Ghostface, essentially the mascot of the Scream-iverse) as a lackluster reaffirmation of how perpetually threatened white people feel? It may be the network is simply nostalgic for those MTV Movie Awards of the mid-90s, where teenagers looked to the golden popcorn as a representation of their voice and as a reflection of their generation. MTV is, as Bob Weinstein of the Weinstein Co., the notorious studio responsible for the original film series, has recently claimed, “where the teens reside.” It’s unclear if he’s right or if this was ever actually true. But the only thing the existence of Scream the TV series makes clear is that white people are still very afraid. And generally, it’s at the expense of colored faces.

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Tika-SumpterBecause TV watching now entails at least two glowing screens at all times, here are some stories from around the interwebz:

  • Caleb moves back to Rosewood after spinoff flops. “Pretty Little Liars: Tyler Blackburn to Return as Series Regular” (via The Hollywood Reporter).
  • FOX renewal news: Mindy Kaling is getting another go at it whether you like it or not, along with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Following, and New Girl (via TV by the Numbers).
  • Lastly, record-setting ratings for OWN with The Haves and the Have Nots finale and an undeniably valid reason for a Tika Sumpter pic. Yay! (via Variety)

[Ed. Note: I’d be surprised if that title hasn’t been used already. It pretty much writes itself.]

The ABC Family darlings are back after an in-story five month hiatus, less than three months in real life, and it appears as if the revelation of the identity of “A” and Mya’s1 murder at the end of last season hasn’t taken away from our girls’ enjoyment of the summer. Spencer has been dry humping Toby for months. Aria has been able to get over her parents’ separation by presumably wet humping her elder beau. Hanna has found ‘jubilation’ in the culinary arts and an expanded vocabulary. Emily has found the bottle.

We’re immediately reminded in last night’s season premiere of how badly things can go for Emily. She’s a lush, a queer (book spoiler alert: questioning her sexuality may be more appropriate), a widower (kinda), and ethnic in a town where that’s apparently frowned upon (refer back to the untimely demise of Mya and Garrett’s current incarceration2, solely the result of falling in love with the wrong white girl). Emily has been dealt a rough hand in a straight white American game of hearts. She’s so othered throughout the series, it appears benevolent for her fellow little liars to remain friends with her. She’s ostensibly the weakest link. “A” concocted an arc’s worth of torment last season to drive home the point. The tragedy however is that the rest of the gang seems to buy into it and Emily is left outside looking in several times in this premiere episode.

Everyone keeps secrets in the series. Whether it’s occasional sit downs with a catatonic Mona, parlays with an alleged murderer Garrett, or fake dating a secret ninja with heart disease3, there’s no shortage of information that’s privately kept on a need-to-know basis, at least temporarily. Pretty Little Liars is largely about secrets. The show relies heavily upon reinforcing the theme that the aesthetic of Rosewood and all its parts are deceitfully appealing, everything from the sartorial, to the romantic, to the truly adolescent act as an attractive gloss to mask the murder, cat fights, and sex. All the little pretties lie, cheat, steal, fornicate, and sometimes kill. And it always stands in contrast to open-toed pumps and couture bangles in the beautifully manicured suburbs of PA. A perfect example is the “retail therapy” Hanna’s mother finds appropriate to deal with the body of her late best friend being apparently stolen from her grave. Parenting in Rosewood is sort of like that.

It’s an easy critique to acknowledge that Emily exists near the outside of the Rosewood, PA status quo. Her parents literally moved away and fundamentally took her roots with them. No one brought her shopping when her girlfriend was murdered. And she doesn’t seem privy to the secrets of the group anymore. Why not just tell her that “A” might’ve had accomplices? That all her and Alison’s belongings were swiped? That the torment isn’t quite over? It seems Emily simply didn’t need to know the secret, despite not being allowed, by various forces throughout the series, including an ulcer, to keep any secrets of her own. In deciding to keep her out of the loop, Aria, Spencer, and Hanna exclude Emily from the economy of secrecy and appearances that maintain the group’s friendship and defends them against conflict — with “A”, law enforcement, parents, or whoever. Ostracized from secret keeping and pretty clothes, Emily then represents distinct conflicts independent of the group, distanced from the upper middle class world of Pretty Little Liars. She’s a subtle casualty and alcoholism may be just the beginning. Emily sported the least impressive wardrobe this episode and even had to burn an outfit at one point. It can only get worse from here.

Surely, this was what “A” had planned from the beginning — driving a societal wedge between Emily and her friends. With “A’s” cunning and psychological manipulation, we’ve almost forgotten that Emily is the hot one! Clearly, our mystery antagonist — with the most prolific unlimited text plan on television — is in no way down for the count. I predict, however, Emily Fields still has some fight in her yet. She’ll prove somehow that she doesn’t have to be the victim or a casualty of these white girl reindeer games. Maybe there’s a lot more to Em then just a pretty face and TV tokenism. For the series’ sake, I hope so.

1Mya is played by the perennially 16 year old Bianca Lawson. Perhaps now her ageless soul can finally rest.

2 Is Garrett more implicitly of color? Yani Gellman is Canadian and Australian according to his Wikipedia, but he speaks Spanish and plays anything from Italian to Latino.

3Whatever happened to that guy? Oh yeah. No one cared.

from left to right: Hanna, Emily, Aria, and Spencer

A long time ago in November of 2000, the WB Network, the frog that would eventually lip-lock with Viacom/CBS to become toady’s CW prince, aired a particularly absorbing episode of its hit teen drama Dawson’s Creek. The episode, season 4’s “The Unusual Suspects”, begins with a mystery – a dog set on a boat afloat in Capeside High School’s indoor swimming pool. Student and staff spectators alike were in awe. Remember 2000 was a simpler time. The novelty of such a prank may be lost on an audience jaded by a fairly rough decade of war and recession, but back then, a wily Clinton was still in office and No Strings Attached was on repeat in all our discmans (“What’s an mp3?”) A boat in a pool was rightfully awe-inspiring, and the mystery and intrigue of the episode was palpable.

A little background for the episode: Pacey and Dawson, former longtime besties, are currently on the outs, due to Pacey and Joey’s, Dawson’s other bestie and perhaps crushie, recurrent habit of making out and holding hands. Jack, a jock added as a series regular along with his sister Andie barely a season prior, is a secondary character/friend and is gay, possibly closeted, maybe out, maybe not gay (Really, it was twelve very long years ago.) Jenn, the blonde, notorious Creek game changer, is significant too but not necessarily for the purposes of revisiting this particular episode.

Jack, Pacey and Dawson are immediately suspected by Principal Peskin – it was his boat and his dog in the pool – to be the most likely culprits. Specific reasons are given but it comes down simply to Pacey being the bad boy of the show, Dawson being ostensibly unlikely but having ample opportunity (and it is his Creek after all), and Jack being decided upon by the writers to be gay important to the series’ dramatic interests. So the investigation begins. There’s traditional film noir lighting during the questioning scenes, some good cop bad cop played by the Principal and Dawson’s father, and a sequence of flashbacks narrated by each suspect. Their alibis are airtight and their testimonies touch upon a lot of the A and B plots of the series to this point. Jack spent the time in question with Jenn coaching a soccer team, where Jenn has an introspective moment or something. When Dawson is reminded of a pact he and Pacey had made in the past to pull a prank of this magnitude, he coldly reminds everyone that their friendship has ended. Pacey was making out and hand holding with Joey. (In 2000, that was definitely enough to satisfy many devoted shippers, while sending others into a frenzy. Good television, people.)

The episode culminates in the audience and Joey’s discovery that they did, in fact, do it. They pulled it off cleverly and together. Whether the answer to ‘how’ is satisfactory, the answer to ‘why’, especially for Dawson and Pacey, forces the viewer to reconsider what we know about these characters and the dynamics of the series. It’s done surprisingly well too. The temptation to force square pegs into a circular hole to generate a new story or gimmicky mystery was rightfully resisted and the squares as a result became more fleshed out people – corny, small-town New England people with complicated relationships and an affinity for boating.

Pretty Little Liars on ABC Family is certainly no Dawson’s Creek, if only for the lack of a nautical element. But in 2012, Rosewood, Pennsylvania is the best simulacrum of Capeside, Massachussets we have; Capeside circa “The Unusual Suspects” especially, when it comes to using mystery as a vehicle for plot. The death of Alison DiLaurentis, an admittedly dark start to a teen drama but comparable to Dawson’s Creek killing its own troubled blonde girl on its way out in ’03, provides the framework for similar natural character development. Surely, that wouldn’t be nearly good enough to seize an audience and PLL (as the kids call it these days) outpaces the Creek (as the kids never quite called it those days) in its cliffhangers, mysterious reveals, and also hasn’t shied away from the record for adulterous parents and the incredulous teen vocabulary battle (“Kids don’t really talk like Spencer, do they?!”) that the Creek kids once made prominent.1

Pretty Little Liars functions under the umbrella of mystery in a way consistent with what television has discovered from years of experience teens want. Remember the nerdy and awkward girl next door Josephine Potter that matured with time? Pretty Little Liars does. Remember when Pacey hooked up with a teacher? Pretty Little Liars remembers. What the mystery of A and the death of Alison add to the series is an unrelenting ‘boat in the pool’ mode that allows us to follow more closely what these characters may or may not become, without the crutch of feeling that things are as they’ve always been so they must at some point return to that. This week, we were taught to even question family makeups themselves. The reveal that Jason, Alison’s brother, is also Spencer’s brother may have been genuinely surprising to some, but more importantly, it functioned in a way that, even though distressing to Spencer, didn’t distress the PLL world. To many, the reveal probably just made sense. The weight of the news has been rippling backwards through the series for some time now. The reveal simply provided an answer, while creating a multitude of questions in the PLL fashion. (Good television, people.)

Basically, Pretty Little Liars is a damn good ride for those of us that don’t actually need to go anywhere. The comparison with Dawson’s Creek is mostly unnecessary, PLL can probably hold its own being merely compared to Gossip Girl, but is important only in that, if it holds, the gap between a generation of viewers, the space between Nielsen demos, the difference between the angst that matters and the inconsequential angst of yesteryear isn’t as large as it may seem sometime. And if Aria, Hanna, Emily and Spencer can live on screen as real persons with real drama, teen drama but real nonetheless, then maybe we won’t all be forced to grow up so quickly to gain more introspection and insight. Simply, I don’t wanna wait for our lives to be over. I want to know right now what will it be… do do do do

1Rory Gilmore being the closest competitor for the remainder of the decade.