A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the teens in Pretty Little Liars (which is based on the Harper Teen Novels of the same name) engage in lots of naughty behavior like theft, defying parents' rules, breaking and entering, and general gossipy mockery. The story centers on an intense, ongoing incident of bullying by an unidentified person who threatens to reveal damaging secrets about her victims' private lives. Teen sexuality -- including a main character's homosexuality and a teen's sexual relationship with her high-school teacher -- makes for some intense physical encounters that stop just before the act itself (although it's referenced later). Expect some sporadic violence, including murder (but no blood) and scenes of dead bodies; a fair amount of language ("bitch," "damn," "ass," etc.) from the teens; and some misguided choices that lead the characters into dangerous situations, all of which is made possible by an extreme lack of parental influence. That said, mature teens and adults will find this series to be an enticing blend of drama, mystery, and suspense.
What's the story?
In PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, friends Aria (Lucy Hale), Hanna (Ashley Benson), Emily (Shay Mitchell), and Spencer (Troian Bellisario) are drawn back together a year after the disappearance of their best friend, Alison (Sasha Pieterse). The four reconnect after Alison's murdered body is discovered, and they begin receiving threatening messages from an omniscient person called "A," who uses their deepest secrets as leverage to dictate their every move and imply their involvement in Alison's murder. The friends set out to unmask their anonymous tormentor and prove their innocence but instead get drawn into a series of mysteries that raises more questions than they answer about Alison's fate and the motives of the people they thought they knew best. The deeper they dig, the more ground "A" seems to gain, staying a step ahead of them at every turn and threatening exposure that could unravel their lives and the lives of their families, friends, and significant others.
Is it any good?
Based on the Harper Teen novels by Sara Shepard, this series is rich in suspense, mystery, and beautiful, fashionable characters who skirt the rules to achieve their own set of goals. The result is enticing entertainment that will keep viewers guessing and coming back for more, but the downside is that anyone who hasn't yet walked the halls of a real-life high school will get from the show a very skewed impression of what those teen years are like. These girls dress for a school day like they're moonlighting on a catwalk, and they have no shortage of time and no reliable parental oversight that keeps them from chasing down murder suspects, cozying up with a hunky teacher, or breaking into private property in pursuit of clues.
That's the bad news, but it's not the whole story. There are some positive takeaways from the characters' evolutions as a result of "A"'s bullying, which makes them rethink their past actions as social queens and become more empathetic to those on the social fringe. True, the girls don't always model great behavior and certainly don't incur the repercussions they might for their actions in the real world, but in their defense, they're motivated by a sense of self-preservation and a quest for the truth. The bottom line? If your young teen is champing at the bit for more grown-up TV, Pretty Little Liars is worth considering, provided that you're proactive in talking about the issues it raises, including sexuality (and homosexuality), relationships, peer pressure, and bullying in all its forms. Parents should know that later seasons of the show take place after a five-year time jump; the older twentysomethings often deal with more mature problems, drink, refer to their sex lives, and participate in a crime with lingering aftereffects.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about bullying. What instances of bullying exist in Pretty Little Liars? What different forms can bullying take? Is any one form more or less harmful than another? What role does technology play in bullying now?
Teens: Do you think this series paints an accurate portrait of teen life? Are the characters’ troubles relatable to you? Why or why not? What kinds of stereotypes does this show reinforce or challenge? How does what you see of teen life on TV or in movies influence your own life? Parents: Talk to teens about the role models and messages in shows like this.
How do your relationships with your friends compare to that of the four main characters? Are there things you'll discuss with your friends but not your parents? To whom would you turn if you were in a dangerous situation? How could the teens have handled their situation differently? Have you ever been betrayed by a friend?
Talk about the relationship between the teen and her teacher. What are the laws around teens and adults having romantic or sexual relationships? Why is a relationship between a teen and adult problematic? Does this show glamorize this type of relationship?
Themes & Topics
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