Adapted from the young-adult pulp of novelist Sara Shepard, Pretty Little Liars (ABC Family, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET) is the high-school drama sassing around the top of the cable ratings chart this summer. It is totally soapy in two respects: The cast members activating its teen intrigues—a foaming lather of frippery—give every indication of having sashayed straight out of an ad for designer shampoo. The per-episode blow-drying budget conceivably runs into the mid-five figures. Tressed for success, the actresses are at times upstaged by their own coiffure, and the characters themselves seem aware of the show's aesthetic values, at least fleetingly.
Consider this early moment: A doll-eyed brunette finds herself conflicted about whether to tell her mother that she caught her dad cheating. Her lip trembles, and her conscience wobbles, and meanwhile one member of her clique—a perky-nosed bottle blonde—reserves her greatest disapproval for the dad's taste in matters of grooming: "If you're gonna cheat, you oughta do it with someone who deep-conditions her hair occasionally." Too true.
While no one beyond the show's target audience—teens in need of something to squeal over until Gossip Girl returns next season—would claim that Pretty Little Liars has a voluminous body, I must concede that it has a lustrous shine. The pretty little heads of the title characters belong to the four most popular girls at a high school in Rosewood, Pa.—one of those made-for-TV towns harboring so many dark secrets that it's fated to look perfectly idyllic. The series picks up a year after Alison—the leader of their clique, their alpha lap dog, their Regina George and Heather No. 1—vanished without a trace of lipstick. Thus, Pretty Little Liars poses a "Who killed Laura Palmer?" sort of question to youngsters who've only recently dispensed with Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?.
Each of our four heroines spent the 12 months immediately after Alison's disappearance nursing her guilty feeling and tending to her Daddy issues and such in Rosewood or elsewhere. Now reconvened, the gang is haunted and taunted by an anonymous person (persons?) who signs herself (himself?) "A." Apparently A. knows not only what the girls did last summer but also what they're doing this fall and probably even what they want for Christmas. Naturally, A. utilizes all the tools available to a 21st-century force of menace—texts, IMs, ominous FM-radio dedications …. There's even a goad that's handwritten on a mirror with lipstick. Scrutinizing the color of the writing on the reflective wall, one of these chickadees wonders, "Is that jungle red?" A comrade confirms that it is—and helpfully lets the audience in on the knowledge that jungle red was Alison's shade. Color me chestnut.
Although A. has yet to identify Alison's assailant, she's got a lot of other material to work with. The girls' closets are so full of skeletons that it's a wonder they can fit all those cute shoes in there. For instance, Aria—the brunette with the cheating father—is at the outset of an inappropriate relationship with the hunky new English teacher. He's of two minds about whether to give her a little of the old advanced placement, but they've made kissy-face and had a sexually charged discussion about Atticus Finch.
Meanwhile, Emily, not to be outdone, feels romantic stirrings for two partners deemed inappropriate by local standards. One is Toby, a sensitive rebel in a black leather jacket. The other is Maya, a dope-smoking lesbian. Emily experiences a great deal of consternation when someone steals photographs of her and Maya kissing. This is really quite a tizzy, and it's where the show lost me. Why the fuss? I am under the impression that kids these days regularly applaud girl-girl spit-swapping at venues ranging from keg parties to moot-court competitions.
The other two girls, Hanna and Spencer, also do yeoman's work keeping the teen audience bopping: Shoplifting. Plagiarism. Stealing a sister's boyfriend. Wrecking a boyfriend's car. Daddy issues. Mommy issues. Uh-huh. OK. That's a great sweater—where'd you get it? ... Back in my day, we had to walk five miles uphill in the snow just to watch Brenda Walsh lose her V-card … and then our moral guardians made Aaron Spelling give us a lecture about it. Pretty Little Liars represents the new sophistication—nicely jaded, its sermonizing low-key, its manner quick and mean. Now, as always, kids are wearing hairstyles meant to confound their elders.