Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin: Season 1 Retrospective

When Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin debuted on HBO Max, I went through a myriad of emotions. I was excited because HBO Max is known for its quality television and I thought that the show could lean into all the horror elements without the restraints of network television. I was also nervous because Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin was created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Lindsay Calhoon Bring. Sacasa has an infamous reputation as the showrunner of the off-the-rails Riverdale series and its two spinoffs The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Katy Keene. Riverdale started off as one of those “so bad it’s good” shows but the series has become tired and critically maligned and has steadily lost favor amongst fans as the seasons drag on. #SaveTheRiverdaleCast

pretty little liars: original sin.

Sacasa’s involvement in Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin raised some red flags for me, but if there’s one thing I can say for him, it’s that his shows all look amazing and are shot beautifully. I was willing to put my skepticism aside because I was excited to see what the next installment of the Pretty Little Liars franchise had in store. Be warned: I will be discussing spoilers for the Pretty Little Liars franchise, including the recent Original Sin, so consider this your official spoiler warning.

Content warning: this retrospective also includes conversations around sexual assault, grooming, and suicide.

The original series was created by Marlene King, based on the young adult novels by Sara Shepard. I only watched the first seven episodes of Season 1 back when the show originally aired in 2012. As a lover of all things pop culture, I still kept up with the show’s progress over the years, so I was aware of the passionate fan base around the series and the lackluster reception to Pretty Little Liars’ final season, which aired in 2017. Pretty Little Liars is a show that’s incredibly popular despite even the most hardcore fans admitting that it is full of plot-holes and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. 

Despite its reputation, I have to give credit to Pretty Little Liars because its concept is so damn awesome. A best-friend-but-complicated group of high school girls are hanging out one night when one of their members, Allison, the Queen Bee of Rosewood, goes missing. One year later, the girls start receiving threatening texts from the mysterious ‘A’ who psychologically f*cks with them and exposes their many dark secrets. Mystery after mystery unfolds as the girls try to discover the identity of ‘A’ and clear their names of the suspicion of Allison’s disappearance.

The concept works because the stakes are clear, the characters’ motivations make sense, and the mystery of A’s identity is compelling. The execution didn’t justify the amazing concept. The show quickly became bogged down by mysteries that were never solved, plot points that were never resolved, and characters who would disappear inexplicably from one season to the next.

Regardless, I wanted to give Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin the benefit of the doubt. I decided that I’d go into the series with as little expectation as possible. To my surprise, the first three episodes of the show were incredibly engaging (though flawed) and the new villain was a terrifying monster who was front and center in a way the original ‘A’ never was. This time around, the central protagonists of the new series were a diverse group of teenage girls who find themselves drawn together after a masked killer begins holding them all accountable for the sins of their mothers. He texts them and murders the school bully (literally named Karen) in the middle of a dance, forcing the girls to band together to find out exactly what their mothers did to draw his wrath.

Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin.

The group of girls is led by the pregnant Imogen Addams, played by the delightful Bailee Madison (Once Upon A Time, The Strangers: Prey At Night), whose mother Davie kills herself and writes ‘A’ in her blood on the bathroom wall in the first episode. Imogen finds an old flyer of a 1999 Y2K party Davie received on the night of her death and soon learns a girl named Angela Waters killed herself at the same party. The group also consists of film nerd Tabby (Chandler Kinney), ballerina Faran (Zaria), the quiet and withdrawn Minnie “Mouse” (Malia Pyles), and track star Noa (Maia Reficco). 

The central protagonists can make or break a series, and most of the cast does great with their roles, though the acting from all the parents left much to be desired. Imogen is arguably the character the audience spends the most time with. She’s pregnant after being raped at a party, and her mother commits suicide (or was she murdered?). It makes sense why Imogen would be so invested in the case to find justice for her mom and discover the connective tissue between the current day and the tragic events of the Y2K party that led to Angela’s death. As the season dragged on, the situations Imogen finds herself in become more and more ludicrous, like when she runs across the entire town to escape ‘A’ or when she takes herself and Tabby on long road trips to other towns to find clues. 

Imogen is a fine protagonist, though the early writing of the character didn’t make any sense. At the end of the first episode, Imogen and her friends are placed in detention for things they didn’t do, but believe Karen Beasley, the Queen Bee and bully of the school and Imogen’s revenge-fueled former best friend, framed them for. The first episode ends with Imogen and the girls plotting their revenge against Karen with Imogen telling everyone as menacingly as possible: “Let’s kill Karen Beasley.”

It was that line alone that made me not trust Imogen. I felt that the show was setting her up to be some sort of secondary villain to ‘A’, or maybe even the one calling the shots. So imagine my surprise when the line about “killing Karen Beasley” was never brought up again by Imogen or her friends. Karen is murdered by A in the second episode, with her death serving as a way for A to manipulate and torment the girls, but Imogen herself had nothing to do with Karen’s demise. It’s frustrating because it’s almost like Sacasa wanted to end the episode on a cliffhanger, so he had Imogen announce her plans to kill Karen but they never pay off or are mentioned ever again.

You may be wondering why I’m spending almost two paragraphs bitching about one line, but the problem lies here: dialogue is how we infer things about our characters. It gives us clues into what the characters are thinking, because sometimes what they DON’T say is as important as what they DO say. Imogen smiling creepily at the camera and talking about killing someone immediately makes her into an individual the audience can’t trust, which is fine in some cases but we are meant to see Imogen as an angel and we’re meant to trust her. 

Following her mother’s death, Imogen moves in with her best-friend Tabby and Tabby’s mother Sydney (Sharon Leal). I liked Tabby at first but she CONSTANTLY drops movie references in conversation and it gets old real fast. The girls could be talking about a school dance and within that 1-minute conversation, Tabby will reference Prom Night, Carrie, Graduation Day, Final Exam, and Scream 2, and girl… it is EXHAUSTING. I typically love the movie geek character. Mindy from Scream 5 is my fictional best friend, and she knows how to drop references in a tasteful way that doesn’t feel forced. #ProtectMindyInScream6.

Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin: Tabby.

Social messaging should be on TV, especially in a modern show like Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin which deals with heavy issues like teen pregnancy, racism, sexual assault, suicide, and grooming. The show could’ve authentically tackled these issues but instead breezes over them with Tabby providing commentary on their presence in the show. One of Tabby’s biggest arcs in Season 1 is dealing with being sexually assaulted at a party a year earlier by the same man who raped Imogen. Not only does she have to deal with dude-bro assholes at school, but Tabby is also groomed by her boss Wes at work. Her rightful mistrust of men sets Tabby up as someone I wanted to see get some happiness, justice, and closure.

I’m disappointed Tabby never has a direct encounter with ‘A’ herself. No chase scene. Nothing. The encounters she does have are hallucinations that are never explained. She’s not a Final Girl but she views herself as one and the show has yet to justify that view. Going forward into Season 2 (because yes this show was renewed for a second season) I want to see Tabby kick some ass, use her brain, and take down corruption in her school. Give her some chase scenes. Let her be a Final Girl and stop traumatizing her just to have these hot-button issues of grooming and sexual assault in the show. Chandler Kinney is a great actor—let her act!

This brings me to Noa, the juvenile delinquent track star of the group. Maia Reficco (Do Revenge, Kally’s Mashup) shines in the role and deserves way more screen time than she was given. Noa has an interesting story arc in which she takes the fall for her addict mother and must deal with the consequences that ensue…juvenile detention, a record, and probation. As someone who had to take the fall for the horrible actions of a parent, I connected personally with Noa’s story and I admired her bravery and resolve.

She also has the COOLEST chase scene in the entire series, when ‘A’ attacks her at her apartment complex and chases her to the roof of the building. Unfortunately, Noa was severely underutilized. Her story, while intriguing, felt so disconnected from the rest of the action. 

The show seemed to be setting up Noa as an adversary for the creepy and pedophilic sheriff (why are there sooooo many pedophiles in this show? Why???) who is the father of Karen Beasley and her twin sister, but the storyline is dropped and the sheriff relegated to the sidelines until the end of the show when he is murdered offscreen by ‘A’. So much potential, and such poor delivery for Noa. #MakeNoaTheMainCharacterInSeason2

The same can be said for Faran, the ballerina of the group. Like Noa, Faran is a cool character but her potential is never realized. Faran’s big arc follows the dancer as she vies for the lead role in Swan Lake, putting her in competition with Karen’s twin sister Kelly. The drama around Swan Lake was boring and contrived and lasted way longer than it should’ve. I’m fine if I never hear the words “Swan Lake” again. Faran and Kelly’s rivalry is bland and cliched, and it becomes worse when Faran starts to suspect that Kelly is her twin sister Karen in disguise, meaning that ‘A’ killed Kelly, not Karen. It’s a potentially gloriously soapy storyline that just fizzles out towards the end of the season and instead shifts the drama to Faran and her mostly absent mother. 

The final member of the group is Minnie “Mouse” a socially awkward teenager who loves technology and dressing up as the missing children of heartbroken parents. Yeah…it’s f*cking weird. I guess I have to give credit where credit is due because I have never even imagined a plotline like that could exist. Drama ensues when one unstable and pervy adult takes things too far and stalks Mouse at her school and around the town of Millwood. Out of all the leads, Mouse has the least screen time and most of it deals with the trauma her near-kidnapping as a child caused her and her two moms. Like with Faran and Noa, Mouse’s story is so disconnected from the main action it almost feels like she belongs in a different show.

I think that’s the ultimate problem with Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin. It feels like several different shows packaged into one, set against the backdrop of a Pretty Little Liars-esque mystery. It’s a needlessly convoluted story that gets bogged down in cliché writing and storylines that aren’t properly planned out. The show presents itself as cool and modern but In my initial review of the first three episodes, I said the following that I still think applies: the series tackles almost every social issue it can within the premiere episode- suicide, bullying, abortion, teen pregnancy, sexual assault, grooming, and so on. It feels a bit overblown, and while these elements should be explored onscreen, they aren’t given enough time to be authentically dissected. The result is a series that is trying to be relevant to modern audiences, and while the effort should be commended, it’s a little too much.

One of the worst sins of Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin is that it contradicts itself. It includes all of these hot-button issues but doesn’t critique them or offer any new perspective. Some of the criticism directed at the original series had to do with the amount of inappropriate adult/teenage relationships. Ezra and Aria are one of the couples of the original Pretty Little Liars. The problem is, Ezra is a teacher and Aria is his student. He spent the entire series grooming her, and in the final episode, they get married. It was an incredibly controversial and problematic storyline that was presented as a sexy and exciting forbidden love story.

Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin doesn’t rectify the storyline, in fact, it glorifies and celebrates it. The show critiques the idea of toxic masculinity and explores the harmful traumas of sexual assault in some ways, but then it does something so egregious like having Ezra and Aria adopt Imogen’s baby. And Imogen and Tabby are not only okay with it, but they’re also excited for the prospects. I think the baby (and Aria) needs to be rescued from Ezra. That man belongs in prison, along with all the pedophiles of this franchise. And my god… there are so many of them.

This brings me to the final part of the show I wanted to touch on before we wrap up this retrospective: the villain of Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin: ‘A’. In the original series, ‘A’ was mostly in the background, texting the girls and remaining shrouded in secret and shadow. In Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin, ‘A’ is a fearsome beast of a man who resembles iconic horror figures like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees.

 ‘A’ is actually pretty scary in this series, but it was obvious he wasn’t working alone. I had a hard time believing it was this ‘A’ who was sending texts to the girls; it was clear that ‘A’ was the muscle and someone else was behind the scenes orchestrating the chaos. Unfortunately for the ‘A’ of Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin, the reveal of his identity, his motivations, and his secret ally was tied to one of the most underwhelming twists I have ever seen in the history of my television watching. 

Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin: A.

The big reveal of Season 1 is that the mastermind behind the plot to terrorize Imogen and her friends in retaliation for the actions of their mothers is none other than the high school principal, a character who had maybe two minutes of screen time in the entire season. I can’t even remember the principal’s name and I don’t think I care to look it up but here’s the gist: the principal, who has no connection up until this point to any of the characters or plot, is the Big Bad of the series. He’s the secret father of Angela Waters, the girl who killed herself at the Y2K party in 1999. Angela was relentlessly bullied by the mothers of the main girls, and the principal decides to wait several years before undertaking his revenge. Not against the mothers, but rather, their daughters. 

But the twist doesn’t end there. ‘A’ is the secret brother of Angela Waters and he has been murdering bullies the entire season. He wears a creepy mask because his face is deformed, though we never receive confirmation of this.

And guess what? The final twist is the reveal of A’s true name: Archie.

Asldkgfhjasripdtgyhanu jbqav[gtnhjafuv btw;P[‘OBNHFGTO2UWT9!!!! WHAT??? WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY? Sorry, my keyboard had a freakout. That’s how ludicrous this Riverdale-lite twist was. I forgot to mention easily the most cringe part of the show: Pretty Little Liars and Riverdale now exist in the same universe, each with a character named Archie. The references aren’t in name alone…the characters of Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin literally talk about how Angela Waters’ mother was sent to the Sisters of Quiet Mercy over in Riverdale. Don’t ask me to explain it….because I can’t.

By the season one finale, everything in Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin felt soulless and empty. The sets and costumes are ugly, the acting from all the non-lead characters is sub-par at best, and the storyline was needlessly convoluted and contradicts itself. It’s disappointing because the potential for the show to be great is all there, but the execution of the ideas and themes presented in Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin was messy, distracting, and ultimately underwhelming. 

Final Thoughts and Musings

I’m not sure if I’ll be tuning in to Season 2. The jury is still out on that one.

No one in the town seemed to notice all the missing people ‘A’ murdered.

The parents in this show are the worst parents in TV history. I also think it’s hilarious that all the mothers of Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin appeared to have their children at the exact same time. 

The back and forth with the Swan Lake plot was so aggravating and unnecessary. I honestly felt this way towards most of the show’s plotlines.

Next up for Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa: the True Blood reboot. Buckle up for that one folks.

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