A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this TV show.
Plays up the drama of teens' lives, making everything look much more exciting, sexy, beautiful, and mysterious than it is in real life. Bullying is central to the plot, as teens are stalked and blackmailed by an unknown person. Emotional betrayal is common, as are theft, extramarital affairs, and manipulation (though much has consequences for those involved). Problematic messages about consent: a high school teacher engaging in a relationship with his student. But some moments underscore the importance of strong friendships and family relationships.
Positive Role Models
The teen characters test limits with drugs, shoplifting, etc. Some parents share happy relationships and are involved with their kids, while others set examples that create challenges for teens, including having affairs, using sex as a tool, and keeping secrets from their partners. Many scenes show teens obsessing over their appearance and clothing, being portrayed as catty and clique-ish. On the plus side, adversity gives the characters a chance to work through it and emerge stronger, which most do. Most characters mature and loyalties shift, but many remain untrustworthy.
The show is led by four young women who are the heroes of their own stories as they turn to each other in the face of an unknown stalker. But their emotional well-being is often tied up in romantic relationships, with a big focus on looks. While racial diversity is lacking in Rosewood, the show includes queer characters. A main character (played by bisexual actor Shay Mitchell) comes out in the first season, and the show follows her experiences without stereotypes. But a trans character is villainized and dead-named, and queer relationships are portrayed as less stable than heterosexual ones. Most characters are upper-middle-class, prioritizing their looks with the latest fashion trends, though wealthy characters are acknowledged as privileged.
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Violence & Scariness
Story centers on the murder of a teen, and violent acts are sprinkled throughout the seven seasons. Dead bodies are shown. Multiple shootings (not all fatal). Teens' lives are threatened, and some characters disappear. The relationship between a teen and her teacher would be considered statutory rape in the real world, though that's not how it's framed here. In later seasons, a character is killed (accidentally) and the death is covered up. Later seasons are also a bit bloodier, with a (non-fatal) stabbing as the camera lingers on pooling blood.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Kissing, cuddling. It's implied that a few characters have sex; nothing graphic shown. Nudity is limited to the occasional guy walking around shirtless. A student and teacher carry on a romantic relationship despite the illegality of it. Teens often wear skimpy clothing and talk about being "sexy." Older characters in later seasons have often settled into stable relationships.
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Occasional use of "damn," "bitch," "hell," and "ass." Women call each other "bitch" semi-playfully: "Wake up, bitch."
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Products & Purchases
Based on a book series of the same name by Sara Shepard. The story is driven by phones, with multiple depictions of expensive technology, especially for that time. Characters sporadically mention brands. Wealth and materialism are major themes.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Occasional teen drinking and drug use, including smoking pot. But there are often consequences, as when a character gets sick and vomits. In later seasons, adults drink often, generally at dinner or at parties.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Pretty Little Liars is a TV drama series based on the book series by Sara Shephard. The teen characters engage in lots of naughty behavior over seven seasons, including 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 the four main characters. Multiple queer storylines are front and center throughout the show, both in main and side characters, though racial diversity is lacking. Intense physical and sexual encounters stop just before the act itself (though they're referenced later). Violence includes murder, blood, and dead bodies. You can also expect language like "bitch," "damn," "ass," etc., and misguided choices lead characters into dangerous situations (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.
Is It Any Good?
Based on the YA novels by Sara Shepard, this series is rich in suspense, mystery, and beautiful, fashionable characters who skirt the rules to achieve their own goals. Pretty Little Liars will keep viewers guessing and coming back for more, but the downside is its skewed impression of what high school really looks like. Main characters dress for school like they're on the cover of a magazine, and they have no shortage of time and no parental oversight to keep 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. Positive takeaways can be found from the characters' evolutions as a result of A's bullying, which makes them rethink their past actions as queen bees and become more empathetic to those on the social fringe. True, the girls don't always model great behavior, and they certainly don't incur the repercussions they might have 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, relationships and consent, peer pressure, and bullying. Viewers should know that later seasons of the show take place after a five-year time jump; the older 20-somethings often deal with more mature problems, drink, refer to their sex lives, and participate in a crime with lingering aftereffects.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.