Bravo. If I could convey a slow, unamused, snarky slow clap via the internet, that is precisely what you would be hearing right now. Bra-fucking-o. You did it. You got all of us. All of us who tune in weekly, most reluctantly, in the dim hope that this will be the week. This will be the week we learn who A, or Q, or Y is and why he, she, or possibly it is torturing four teenage girls who have a worse attendance record for school than small Chinese Child Labor workers who have never even heard of school. You made us a promise last week, that we would learn who A was. Now, I’m a bit finicky when it comes to rhetoric, so I will absolutely admit that yes, we learned who this anonymous letter was.
It’s just the setup, the execution, and basically the last three seasons have been sort of, well, awful.
I don’t mean in a ‘wow what a terrible show’ sort of way. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be watching it. It isn’t a terrible show. It’s just that the contents of the show is a bit like sticking your hand in a jar of wasps while you desperately grapple for a key dipped in honey that’s been stapled to the bottom.
Your show is good, but your mystery is dreadful.
Bear with me here. I know I’m coming off as insulting which, if you ask basically anyone who has spent 45 seconds or longer in my presence will tell you is a given. Again, if your show was actually bad I wouldn’t watch it. I do watch it, however, because the first season had an awesome set up. The trials and tribulations of Huey, Dewey, Lewey, and Uncle Gruncher as they grappled with school, home drama, oh and someone blackmailing them, was legitimately interesting. I wanted them to figure out as much as I wanted them to go to a damn adult and tell them “Hey, we are being blackmailed to keep your secrets and we totes aren’t cool with that, so here are our phones and if you can just be the adults now that would be great okay thanks bye.”
Maybe that was asking a bit much from teenagers, who knows. Maybe American teens are just more morally corrupt than us Canadians. I can’t say for sure as my only interaction with American teens is through this show, and what I vaguely remember from Wizards of Waverly Place.
But here’s the thing, when you are working with a mystery show format, as Pretty Little Liars most certainly is, there are certain expectations that must be fulfilled by you, the content producer, for us, the media consumer, to prevent us from losing our minds and rampaging until we are inevitably gunned down by a reluctant cop who was only a week from retirement.
That, by the way, was a trope. You seem to sort of understand the concept given that Larry, Moe, Curly, and Uncle Gruncher are all very much tropes. But then you take those tropes and, I don’t know, you try to be creative? The thing is, there has to be a reason for such creativity, or else your audience is left thinking that all character building decisions (or lack thereof) take place with a DnD 24-sided and a bag of cocaine.
Believe it or not, that still doesn’t bother me. Because despite those character flaws, both intentional and unintentional, despite the fact that there is no way those girls will have the knowledge needed to enter post-secondary education or even graduate high school, despite the fact that Toby’s cop-schoolin’ took less time than the daily bowel movements of a health fanatic, and despite the fact that every parent in the PLL universe needs to be arrested for child abandonment (to start), none of those things bother me enough to make me write an open letter. If anything, they are the very reason that myself and a group of women and men gather on r/prettylittleliars with our beer and wine and relentlessly mock how ridiculous the setting is while still shamelessly enjoying the show.
But this past week you revealed who Uber Randomletterhere is, and I think it is safe to say that a solid majority of us are pissed.
Because PLL sucks mystery ass.
Mystery shows, movies, novels, all involve a very precarious pact between producer and consumer. There is an unwritten rule that you give us a chance of pulling the mystery together before you reveal the end game. You have to give us a chance, because we are investing time, energy, and excess brain power that might be better spent study for exams in an effort to figure out your mystery.
You’ve got to give us a chance. Yes, red herrings are totally acceptable, but there is a fine line between how many red herrings you toss us along with your clues, and the number we are able to swallow whole like a seal entertaining an audience of children. Maybe that is just it, maybe you aren’t entertaining us, maybe we are entertaining you.
Listen, I get it, when you are that invested in a story and need to fill X many seasons while still keeping the original premise of The Alphabet has it out for a group of delinquent teenage girls, it can be tough to ensure that you have enough red herrings to keep us entertained while keeping the consumer entertained. I get it.
But don’t worry, Pretty Little Liars People. I’ve got you covered. I am a mystery consumer. I get mysteries. This is for you, Whoever the Hell in in Charge of Pretty Little Liars.
How to Mystery
- The ratio to red herring to clue should be better than my current ratio of pie I want to eat versus pie I could eat. In other words, I currently want to eat all the pie, but there is no pie for me to eat. Pie ratio ∞ : 0. That means your red herring to clue ratio needs to be better, I’m talking max 4:1. Your current red herring to clue ratio is ∞^10: – 16. That means for every infinity to the power of ten red herrings you actually take away clues from us.
- The Big Reveal should utilize the few clues you have given us. That means, when you revealed (spoilers) that Charles is A, my reaction should have been Of course! I makes so much sense! Not, Who the hell is Charles and why should I give a shit about him or… her? The problem here is that you did it backwards, you’ve given us a name and now you plan on giving us clues. Or red herrings. Or whatever. But now I have no reason to want to stick around. I don’t care who Charles is. Years from now my children will ask “Mummy, who was the alphabet man?” And I will say “Charles, dear. Charles.” And my children will be content with that because they will have better things to do than to put up with what is bound to be one of the longest dénouements in the history of nouements.
- You better have established your detective’s abilities right off the bat. If you have a psychic character solving mysteries then tell me. Don’t give someone convenient dreams and psychic abilities at the last minute. That’s like watching a Tim Burton movie and at the moment when the plot needs saving, Johnny Depp shows up to save the day. It is lazy storytelling. Spencer’s magical prophetic dreams are too easily accepted given that they have only happened what, twice? Hence why I think Charles is another red herring. Uber Alphabet is clearly Rachels. Twin theory confirmed.
- Realism is also vital, unless of course you plan on having a magical mystery, which you might have done? The overall narrative makes this unclear. What we do know for sure is that in order to move your plot forward and continue confusing your fans, you have placed zero limits on your characters. Does Blotto need to have aspirations for Presidency in order to qualify Largo Bravo’s religious conversation into a pasta salad? Done. Does Tinky Winky need to know how to fly planes in order to save the Queen of Sheba? Done. Does Crabbucket need to have knowledge of a very obscure legislative ruling from 1976 in order to save Gumbo from getting the chair? So. Done. Your characters are like walking MacGuffins. They fulfill whatever need you as the writers deem necessary, which makes them that much more unbelievable, and given that your whole setting of Lilacbushwood is built on disbelief (parents, school, cops, etc) you could really benefit in making your characters seem a little more… well, helpless.
- And while we’re on the topic of characters… Stop. Just…. Just stop. Quantity does not equal quality.
These are just a few small suggestions that you might want to take into account the next time you plan on writing, well, anything really. Because writing while your head is stuck in a farting whale’s bung-hole is not an effective way to create a narrative that engages your audience on a peer-to-peer level. Don’t talk down to us, but also don’t assume you don’t have to follow the most basic rules of the mystery genre.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to send Marlene King a giant jar of spiders.
As one of the lovely Redditors pointed out, I need to learn the difference between ‘whoever’ and ‘whomever’. My bad. I’m sorry. This will keep me up at night.