Pretty Little Liars Backlash: Hype, the “A” Reveal, and Why Fans Were so Disappointed
Credit: ABC Family Channel © 2012 Disney ABC Television Group    

Pretty Little Liars

Pretty Little Liars Backlash: Hype, the “A” Reveal, and Why Fans Were so Disappointed

It's been almost a month since the Pretty Little Liars Season 2 finale (Season 2, Episode 25: “UnmAsked”), and so it seems like a good time to take a step back and reflect on the way the "A" reveal played out among fans. Because it was intense.

When fans found out "A"'s identity was going to be established in the finale, the general reaction was intense excitement. But the reaction after the finale was … mixed, to say the least. Some fans were so furious that they got into fights with the cast and crew on Twitter. I'll admit that I was, personally, deeply disappointed on first viewing. I felt like "A" was obvious, the episode wasn't as exciting as I'd expected, and it was all generally a let down.

However, after taking a step back, I've realized the anger and disappointment I felt — that many fans felt — had less to do with the actual content of the episode, and more to do with the context it had been put in. My expectations were just too darn high.

As TV has become increasingly serialized over the last several decades, integrating an extended mystery arc into the narrative has become a popular technique. Perhaps most notably, Lost pushed this concept to the extreme, building its entire story around questions that took six seasons to answer — if they were answered at all (but that's a rant for a different time).

The advantages of this strategy are obvious: It provides an instant hook, and gives the audience a reason to keep tuning in for more no matter what. In today's world of integrated media viewing experience, where online communities provide a place for every fan to obsess with like-minded TV lovers, the mystery arc is also a fantastic way to create a fanbase that is not just loyal, but active and engaged.

The problem with mystery arcs is that they have to end, and they inherently mean the value of a story is, in part, resting on how satisfactory the resolution of the mystery is. Now, I hardly think the entire worth of a TV show can be determined by how well the strands of a mystery come together — a disappointing ending can't take away the joyous hours spent trying to fit the pieces together. Even though I am firmly on Team The Lost Finale Was Awful, I will always love the show for the six seasons of fun, frustration, and thrills it gave me.

But it can't be denied that if the writers start a big mystery arc they are, implicitly, promising the viewers that they will try to resolve that arc in a way that will be satisfying. And that's a hard act to pull off. It's not impossible — many fans and critics enjoy the resolution of both Twin Peaks and Veronica Mars' murder mysteries — but the backlash writers face when they disappoint can be harsh.

Pretty Little Liars is an obvious inheritor of this tradition. The teen soap-meets-murder-mystery is the perfect storm of addicting mystery and the kind of relationship drama shippers go crazy for. It's hardly surprising that it has one of the most socially engaged fan bases around.

The stars, writers, and crew haven't shied away from their online fanbase, either. Showrunner Marlene King constantly takes time out of her day to tweet with fans. She shares spoilers, gushes over exciting plot twists, posts pics, and even chats with fans about what it's like to be a writer. And she's not the only one; from the Pretty Little stars to crew members such as director Norman Buckley, it's possible for fans to directly engage with the people who bring Pretty Little Liars to life. And even when they're not chatting with the fans online, everyone involved is not afraid to gush about how excited they are about the show and all of the upcoming plot twists.

We love that the cast and crew are so openly excited about the show they are working on. It's always good to really feel the passion that goes into the creative process, and the creative team's accessibility makes it easy for fans to feel connected to the production.

But there's a danger to all this enthusiasm: Over-hyping. Pretty Little Liars is hardly the only show that suffers from this phenomenon. In today's socially connected world, you often get creators, writers, and actors tweeting about how great upcoming episodes are, not to mention critics who have seen screeners insisting that you have to tune in to their favorite show this week, because one particular episode will just knock your socks off. Which is fine when the episode really delivers, but runs the risk of turning a decent episode into a disappointment if fans go into it expecting the Best Episode Ever.

It's bad when it's just a random episode. But when overhyping is mixed with the already inherently tricky resolution of a giant mystery, it's a recipe for major backlash, and we would argue that that is exactly what happened with Pretty Little Liars.

Is Mona being "A" inherently a bad conclusion to the arc? No. It might not have been our choice, but it opens up some interesting possibilities and makes about as much sense as you could reasonably expect from this show. And was the Season 2 finale, "UnmAsked," a bad episode? Again, we would say no. It dragged a bit at the beginning, but the "A" lair was chilling, and Mona's downward spiral into complete insanity was fun.

But here's the problem. The cast and crew were going around chatting about how amazing the episode was for months beforehand. It was supposed to be adrenaline-pumping, creepy, jaw-dropping, heartbreaking, one of the best episodes of the show, and, of course, shocking. Combine that with the already heightened expectations inherent in the "A" reveal, and it's easy to see why an episode that was pretty good — but not as great as the cast and crew wanted it to be — suddenly seemed like a gigantic, unforgivable letdown.

Of course, it's now possible for people to go back and try to look at the episode more objectively, to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of Mona being "A" and to start getting excited for Season 3. And many fans are doing that. But the fact of the matter is that the original experience of watching the reveal was a disappointment for many fans, and there's nothing that can be done to change that.

So, what lessons can be learned from this debacle (other than "make TV so great no one can possibly do anything but bow down in wonder")? We're not exactly sure. We're certainly not saying the cast and crew should go lock themselves away in an ivory tower — their accessibility is appealing, and, more importantly, it's clearly the way of the future. But maybe there's something to be said for the creative side reining in their enthusiasm until each episode airs, in letting their show stand on its own.

Maybe next time, it actually will shock us.

Catch an all-new Pretty Little Liars when Season 3 premieres on Tuesday, June 5 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC Family.

Rebecca Martin is an editor at Wetpaint Entertainment. Follow her on Twitter @BeccaMartin47.

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04.10.2012 / 03:03 AM EDT by Rebecca Martin
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