Last week, I wrote about my new obsession, Pretty Little Liars, thinking through how the series reworks representations of young women’s social power and social networks. In doing so, I likely conveyed an already prevalent assumption, namely that the series is just about (and perhaps for) teen girls. I’d like to dig into this assumption a little bit to consider how ABC Family has (perhaps not entirely successfully) positioned to reach a wider demographic of audience.
Ian Harding, the actor who plays Ezra Fitz, the young teacher and love interest of main (teen) character Aria in Pretty Little Liars, shared some apropos commentary about the show’s demographics in a New York Post interview:
Ian Harding: [laughs] At first I thought,…(Pretty Little Liars would be)… just be for teenage girls. But I was in Europe, where it’s not airing yet, and in every city… someone came up to me and said, “I love the show.”…In one occasion this guy, early 30’s, said “I really like the show man.”… He was the man to come up to me strongly and comfortably saying he loves the show… At first, I thought it’s the girl’s show, so their storylines will be really heavy and everyone else’s will be almost scenery. But that’s been so far from the case. I know that “Lost” and “PLL” are two totally different shows, but like that, we kind of answer one question and throw another mystery out. I think what keeps bringing people back into the show is that every storylines is constantly spinning and moving.
I’m struck by how Harding’s comments links Pretty Little Liars’ gender and generational context with its narrative complexity. Harding’s comments highlight the way in which the series’ approach to narrative modifies expectations one might have about the generation and gender of its audience.
Pretty Little Liars manages to skillfully enact one of the strategies of millennial marketing; as I’ve argued elsewhere, the very category of millennials seeks to compound and coalesce a potential audience of teens and young adults, of pre-teens who can identify aspirationally, and of not-so-young-adults that can engage nostalgically. It’s an elusive, expansive category, and Ian Harding’s Mr. Fitz offers older viewers one way in. And not only Mr. Fitz, but many of the adult characters of Pretty Little Liars are positioned as millennials themselves, or borderline (or perhaps honorary) millennials. Indeed, many of the adults struggle with the same millennial themes of ambiguous morality, negotiating identity in a networked town, and doing the right thing by family and friends. As such, their struggles and storylines can hardly even be called B or C plots; rather they tie rapidly into the central mystery.
I don’t want to oversimplify this trajectory, but let me throw out an observation. It would seem to me that past teen-focused series like The OC, Roswell, Veronica Mars, Smallville, and Kyle XY (and even currently running series like Gossip Girl) for the most part either relegate parental characters to the background (if they’re not entirely absent or dead), keep adult and teen storylines separate, or posit adults as foils or antagonists. Pretty Little Liars in contrast appears to model a different approach. Rather than pitting teens against adults, the series offers a more expansive notion of young adult culture through its representation of the millennial generation. Pretty Little Liars positions the adults and teens both as part of the millennial generation, to greater or lesser degrees, and as a result their stories are deeply interwoven, rather than radically separated.
Yet I do not mean to suggest that she show flattens generational differences and conflicts, or recognizes all characters as millennial without acknowledging particular age specific differences. Rather, the series mines the multifaceted spectrum of millennial identity for narrative conflict. In fact, where in the past teen series would feature two teen star-crossed lovers, Pretty Little Liars has as its central romance a cross generational affair between a teacher and a student. Taking the place of Buffy and Angel, Max and Liz, or Marissa and Ryan (vampire slayer/vampire, alien/human, rich girl/poor boy), we have teacher/student Aria and Ezra, who meet in a pub, fall in love talking poetry, only to discover the next morning that Ezra is Aria’s new English teacher. Mr. Fitz is only twenty four, (making his birth year 1987), and thus fits squarely in industry definitions of “millennial.” His age, as an older millennial, becomes the romantic obstacle in their love affair—but certainly not an obstacle to the romance narrative in itself. Rather, the age difference fuels the narrative, just as the species and class differences fueled the narratives of Buffy, Roswell, and The OC. (It’s also worth noting here that two other concurrently airing shows—Gossip Girl and Life Unexpected—now also feature teacher/student relationships, and that Gossip Girl actually went out of its way to retrofit a teacher/student relationship into its primary season one mythos.)
Indeed, Pretty Little Liars seems to have found a millennial approach to narrative construction, where all characters’ narratives weave into the greater social fabric and unfolding mystery. And it’s this narrative weaving that perhaps gives Pretty Little Liars the potential to be compelling television with reach beyond its assumed demographic. However, despite Ian Harding’s anecdotal reports of the series’ success breaking gendered and generational expectations, it remains to be seen whether the series’ buzz can overcome assumptions rooting from its home on ABC Family and its Gossip Girl-like marketing.