All the way back in 2010, ABC Family (now Freeform) had a hit on their hands. Based on the bestselling book series by Sara Shepard and show-run by I. Marlene King, the original Pretty Little Liars was a mixed bag of minor horror inspiration, pulpy soap-opera dramatics, and a never-ending array of mysteries to be solved. In the beginning, I loved Pretty Little Liars, but seven seasons and 160 episodes later, it was painfully obvious that it was just made up as they went along. Spin-off shows Ravenswood and Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists were both abruptly cancelled after just one season each, so I was cautiously optimistic heading into Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin. I am happy to report Riverdale showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa injects meta sharpness, gory horror violence, and dark humor into the PLL formula, producing a show that lovingly pays tribute to the best in genre filmmaking. Minimal, if any, connective tissue between the original show and Original Sin makes this new iteration accessible to newcomers, and easy to recommend.
Far from the sleepy town of Rosewood, Original Sin delves into generations worth of secrets held by the parents of Millwood, and the modern-day repercussions on their children. The pilot episode starts off in a flashy way, transporting the viewer to New Year’s Eve of 1999. A Y2K party at a massive warehouse is in full swing. A bitchy group of friends shun a troubled girl named Angela without a second thought. Makeup running down her face, Angela seems quite a mess. One second she is on her knees on the dance floor; the next, Angela jumps to her death from the balcony, falling with a bloody splatter right at the feet of the other women. It is a nasty, gripping introduction to the series, evoking I Know What You Did Last Summer as we flash forward 22 years later.
One of the women, Davie Adams (Carly Pope, Popular), is so perplexed at seeing the flyer for this Y2K party once again that she abruptly kills herself in the tub. “A” is scrawled on the bathroom wall in blood above Davie’s body. Horror fans will be quick to connect the dots between Davie’s untimely demise to that of Stan in Stephen King’s It, who similarly has “It” written on blood above his own razor-slashed corpse. These horror nods are just the tip of the iceberg. I personally found it satisfying and fun to try to spot the plethora of references, mainly visually as the callbacks through dialogue have been executed time and time again since 1996’s Scream.
One month after Davie’s death, her heartbroken daughter, Imogen (Bailee Madison, Once Upon a Time, The Strangers: Prey at Night), is now living with BFF Tabitha (Chandler Kinney, American Horror Story: Asylum, Zombies 3) and her mom, who was high school besties with Davie. Imogen’s old house is for sale, complete with a masked maniac breathing in observation from the other side of the glass in true Michael Myers fashion. Imogen is nervous to assimilate back into her high school considering her lengthy absence in the aftermath of her mom’s apparent suicide. Imogen’s close friends try to help her adjust. Tabby is an ultra horror-nerd who works at the local Orpheum Theatre, and is especially passionate about the classics (and Jordan Peele!); Noa (Maia Reficco) is a sweet girl with an ankle bracelet on the cusp of finally being done with her house arrest as she begins receiving cryptic texts; Mouse (Malia Pyles, How to Get Away with Murder) is the group’s ultra-smart, hacker type; and Faran (Zaria) is a budding and seriously sassy ballet dancer.
Reinforcing Imogen’s worst fears is the insufferable Karen (Mallory Bechtel, Hereditary), an apparent rival and former friend who seems to constantly feel threatened by Imogen’s presence. In true Pretty Little Liars fashion, Karen has an identical twin, Kelly, who eventually becomes important to the unfolding narrative. Imogen’s attempts to return to normalcy trigger a series of catty events that only escalate as the mysterious masked killer lurks in the background. It takes a full three episodes for the girls to mutter about “A” even as he prowls, stalks, sends threatening texts, incriminating videos, and razors in ballet shoes. By opting for a slow build, this version of “A” is intimidating and horrifying, channeling great horror icons to dizzying effect. Of course, if there’s one thing the original show has taught me, there is a high chance that this masked individual may not even be “A,” and could very well have a whole posse of helpers assisting with their dirty work. If the opening credits were any indication (thankfully utilizing another version of “Secret”), the killer’s lair could be filled with clues. Gross things in jars, clippings, and cryptic notes abound—each time we see this introductory sequence, it presents more time to catch potential answers.
As the 2022 storyline unfolds, nuggets of information about 1999’s tragedy come to light, as the parents are quietly folded into the fray. Thus far, I am not overly invested in any of the parents as I ended up being with those in the original series. I did fall in love with each of the liars, though. Specifically, both Tabby and Imogen are probably my two favorites, with the most to do within the context of the story being told. Bailee Madison must grapple with the heft of emotional trauma from Imogen’s mother passing, as well as convincingly portray her as a character steadfastly committed to uncovering the truth—Madison manages both sides of this coin with aplomb. Chandler Kinney is perhaps the show’s biggest surprise for me, eating up one of the vital roles, and managing to convince us of Tabby’s vast horror knowledge in the process.
Perhaps the greatest detail about Original Sin coming to streamer HBO Max rather than Freeform is the ability to go crazy with violence, language, and explicit sexual content. In this way, Pretty Little Liars finally begins to feel like the show I had wanted from the very beginning, and an absolute queer dream. Eye candy for once centers on the female gaze rather than the male gaze, and there’s even a genius episode (titled “The Fe(male) Gaze”) in which this topic is tackled directly. Tabitha sets out to re-film Psycho’s infamous shower scene with the perspectives swapped, featuring hunky ultra-douche Greg (Elias Kacavas, Euphoria) as the nude, helpless victim. Male nudity appears in hefty supply, whilst female nudity is completely absent, and in my book this is a surprising win.
Of the five episodes I have seen so far, there are three rather big deaths that occur. If Original Sin can keep up the pace and stick the landing, it will easily be my favorite thing from this franchise since the first couple seasons of the flagship show. By dipping itself straight into the annals of horror history, Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin spins a fresh mystery that is difficult not to fall in love with. Some dialogue may be a tad clunky and the wall-to-wall movie references do not always hit, but this is the best Pretty Little Liars has been in years. I loved the more R-rated approach, aiding the material in feeling like a proper genre piece. Set during the Halloween season, I cannot think of a more perfect fit for holiday festivities. A fantastic ensemble of characters including five new liars, an excellent soundtrack, and gory, intense kills make Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin one of the greatest slasher shows to emerge, and an instant win for HBO Max.
Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin unlocks its secrets when it debuts on Thursday, July 28th.