I. Marlene King Changed Teen TV With 'Pretty Little Liars,' But She’s Not Done Yet
It’s definitely no secret that Pretty Little Liars creator I. Marlene King has gotten people to rethink the merits of teen television. Especially, those shows aimed at young women. But, how she did it seemed to be a secret to the young adult shows that came before her. This is despite King making it sound like a no-brainer. “I always asked the writers not to write [the PLL characters] as teenagers; just write them as real people, as adults,” King tells me over the phone weeks before the series finale. “I would always remind somebody, if they say, ‘They’re teen girls.’ I’m like, ‘No, no, no, that’s not how we think.’”
King, who just finished the first season of Freeform's Famous In Love starring Bella Thorne, upped the ante for teen dramas by allowing her young female characters to live in an adult reality with adult problems. King respected the pretty little liars — Aria (Lucy Hale), Spencer (Troian Bellisario), Hanna (Ashley Benson), and Emily (Shay Mitchell) and what they were experiencing, no matter how outrageous things got. And oh, did they go there, like that time the Liars went to that doll hospital. But, more importantly, King showed that same respect to the young women watching PLL.
For seven seasons, Pretty Little Liars was appointment viewing for fans who just wanted to figure out who A.D. is. (Something King’s known for years, by the way, and somehow managed not to spoil.) But what really kept these fans coming back season after season was King’s characters who were hard not to root for. Despite the fact these young women were dealing with things no person should ever have to deal with, they somehow always felt relatable. “That was definitely my goal,” King says, “to create a cast where you were one of them or you knew one of them.”
King created that relatability by always putting the focus on the friendship between the four Liars. It was a bond that was constantly being tested by a mysterious antagonist who was trying to kill them and everyone they love. While these were extreme circumstances, the idea that your friends will be by your side no matter what has endeared it to women who understand that kind of bond but rarely see it on TV. “I just talked to a woman who’s 30 now," King says, "who grew up watching the show, every premiere and every finale with a group of girls. They’re all married now and some have kids but they’re going to get together and watch the finale live.”
That story is why, for King, it’s not the thrills or the mystery of who Uber A is that makes Pretty Little Liars so special, it’s the female friendships. “If the show was an ice cream sundae and you take away the ice cream, there’s nothing left,” King explains. “The mystery is fun, and the romance is fun, but the friendship really is the core of the show.”
Ask King her favorite PLL moments and they’re the ones where Spencer, Hanna, Aria, and Emily have to work together. Like the scene in the pilot where they find Alison DiLaurentis’s body. “That’s the moment these girls were brought together by an event that was going to keep them together as friends for the rest of their lives,” King says. Every episode tests these women, but it also tests how far they’ll go to help their fellow Liar.
That’s not to say Pretty Little Liars’ legacy of upping the ante for high school dramas won’t live on. PLL’s influence on the current crop of teen shows like Netflix's 13 Reasons Why and CW's Riverdale is obvious. On both of these shows characters are forced to deal with life and death situations, while also figuring out who they’re going to take to prom and where they're going to go to college. And both of these things are treated with an urgency that doesn't diminish teen problems.
When I ask about her impact on these news shows, King seems unwilling to take all the credit. “Maybe some of those writers grew up watching Pretty Little Liars,” she says apprehensively before noting that she actually did meet a writer for Riverdale recently who was a PLL fan. But, she likes to look at the big picture. “I hope that we influenced the genre in a positive way,” King says of her effect on teen TV. “And to me, in a positive way is that we give these teen characters the respect they deserve.”
Respect is something King wants to show her characters in everything she does. It started with the first movie she wrote, 1995’s Now and Then, a coming-of-age staple for young girls that focuses on four childhood friends who have reconvened in their hometown of Shelby, Indiana to reminisce about their formative years. Each character is a type — the princess, the “weird” girl, the troublemaker, and the actress — but they’re not caricatures. They're real young women with passions and problems, and they're easy to relate to. Just like Pretty Little Liars, whose four protagonists, play specific roles, but still manage to feel real.
“It’s really important to love these characters,” King says, “to allow them to make mistakes, to allow them to fall every once in awhile, but then to know that they’re going to get back up and dust themselves off and try again.”
King is now doing that herself with her new series Famous In Love, which is based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Rebecca Serle. The series is about a girl named Paige Townsen (Thorne) whose life changes overnight after she gets a role in a Hollywood blockbuster. King says she could have “felt pressured or afraid” to take on another teen show, but she was excited “to flex those muscles and get to do something new.”
Though, as she admits, it wasn’t totally new. “I think, the Pretty Little Liars, the young ladies now, are such fantastic people,” she says. “And I got to watch them go from relatively unknown to becoming starlets and being a part of that journey gave me so much material for Famous in Love.” If Famous In Love, which King calls her attempt at making the “female Entourage,” does get picked up for a second season, there will be some PLL Easter eggs. "The struggles that you go through with fame, the fun of fame," King says, "a lot of that will be informed by the real lives of the pretty little liars.”
And, of course, there will be romance, namely the love triangle between Paige, her best friend Jake Salt, and her new co-star Rainer Devon. Like PLL, King says the relationships on Famous In Love are the ice cream in this sundae. King admits she just can’t help herself when it comes to creating moments that will have fans choosing sides. Right now, she's Team Rainer, but says she keeps switching her allegiance. A sign, in her opinion, of how juicy the storylines are.
King's obsession with a good love story is why she's always felt a kinship with one specific love-centric Liar. “Definitely I relate to Aria as a romantic,” King says. “And as a romantic I ultimately love happy endings.” It’s hard to imagine I. Marlene King’s story ending any other way.