What 'Pretty Little Liars' Knows About Women and Ratings
Antsy audiences could finally exhale as ABC Family's smash hit Pretty Little Liars returned to the air on Tuesday — then those fans took to Twitter, making it the most tweeted premiere in television history. According to Nielsen ratings, the latest episode, "Who's in the Box?" was mentioned in more than 1.3 million tweets. More than 3 million viewers tuned in, and if the number of women watching is any indication, Pretty Little Liars is emerging as more than a guilty pleasure and becoming a serious part of our generation's pop culture conversation.
Currently in its fourth season, the drama reigns as the most popular show on the network and the number one show for women aged 12 to 34. The soapy, glamorized murder mystery stars gorgeous women in their 20s as teenagers who are terrorized by an anonymous, seemingly omnipresent tech maven with an unknown grudge to bear. The show has the elements that have made the genre successful among this demographic: scandal, romance, style, dubious morality, fear of being watched, etc. It's built around the questions of Who is A? And what does A have against these four teenage girls? We delight in every secret and lie, we bite at each clue that's dangled in front of us, and we're moved by the girls' fear, paranoia, and vulnerability. It's far more exciting that what most of us remember about high school. And we can binge-watch it on Netflix.
Pretty Little Liars shares distinct ties to another streamable cult show, David Lynch's Twin Peaks, which ran on ABC from 1990 to 1991. One key difference: Twin Peaks was ultimately a ratings flop. In 2011, PLL showrunner Marlene King told Vulture that when pitching the show's direction to the network, "Twin Peaks was definitely part of our vocabulary."
Twin Peaks became a cultural phenomenon when it aired on April 8, 1990; the pilot was seen by 34.6 million viewers, making it the fifth-ranked TV show at the time. But unlike PLL, it was quickly abandoned by most viewers and cancelled during its second season.
While the shows share central similarities, their differences explain why PLL works today and why Twin Peaks didn't 20 years ago. The latter was targeted toward younger audiences, but most of its viewers were women aged 35 to 49 — and they were giving up on the show. It was harder to follow than Dallas. People grew frustrated with the complexity, multiple rotating characters, and unresolved storylines. Pretty Little Liars has a similar slate, but audiences today are more willing to glaze over confusing sub-plots to follow the main story. One reason seems evident: We're used to over-stimulation. And viewers are more inclined to monitor the fates of four teenage girls who are being harassed. The numbers show that there is more at stake in PLL; we're invested in the girls' relationships, their safety, and their making it through high school despite the evil workings of A. It reworks the "mean girl" narrative and puts us on the side of the popular clique, who came out of a tragedy only to be persistently abused.
Pretty Little Liars isn't afraid to address issues that our generation is drawn to, like drugs, sex, and sexuality, but it portrays them in a way that's suitable for teens and distanced from reality. (Marijuana is the only illegal drug we see, and I can only remember one direct mention of Aria and Ezra having sex — it was in a nightmare she had.) On the other hand, Twin Peaks horrified audiences with its incorporation of cocaine, sexual violence, and incest, the realities of which made the show too hard to watch compared to other prime-time shows at the time like Cheers and The Cosby Show. PLL simplifies controversial issues and focuses the spotlight more on fashion (it's been dubbed the "best-dressed show on TV") and moody high school romance.
Pretty Little Liars also reaffirms an underlying fear (aside from murder) in every single episode that's easy for us to imagine: How technology can be used to destroy us. The characters live on their laptops and mobile devices, but those are the platforms that make A's stalking possible. It's a terrifying thought in real life, but we'd be lying if we said there was no satisfaction in watching it on the screen. The New York Times even called it "the next best thing to surveillance video." Clearly, the "Big Brother" lure hasn't worn off on us. It's no wonder why PLL is the most popular show on Twitter.
Fans are also responding to ABC Family's savvy social media practices. The network does a good job of constantly steering conversations about the show. We can't get away from A either. Pretty Little Liars will likely continue to set ratings records, and Twin Peaks will remain a TV cult classic (rumors about a revival have been quelled). While we may never know who killed Laura Palmer, we do know that Ali wasn't murdered — but we definitely don't want to find out who A is yet.