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The ‘Pretty Little Liars’ Spinoff Is Unhinged Queer Camp

Every time there wasn’t a queer twist, I was surprised—transitively, the heterosexual plot lines in this show are the real twists.

by Jill Gutowitz
Apr 2 2019, 6:13pm

Photo courtesy of Freeform | cast (left to right) Eli Brown, Janel Parrish, Sasha Pieterse, Sydney Park, and Sofia Carson

I’ve often wondered what our world would look like if there were fewer straight people than queer. So has I. Marlene King—and she’s finally explored this on screen.

The prolific producer, who is one of the most successful lesbian creators, sits atop an empire, an empire upheld by her oeuvre of queer television. Though King made a name for herself in the 90s after penning the Christina Ricci-classic Now & Then, it was the long-running and super gay Pretty Little Liars that cemented her as a powerhouse queer creator. After PLL (and during), King moved on to Ravenswood and Famous in Love, both of which centered queer characters in young adult dramas like never before.

Her latest venture, the Pretty Little Liars spinoff, Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists, is the culmination of her queer works, her magnum opus—it’s as if Pretty Little Liars grew up, or accepted itself for who it was. Some might call the show bonkers, unhinged—I certainly would—but I wouldn’t use those words as pejoratives. In The Perfectionists, King has “perfected” young adult murder-mystery camp—but she’s also created a queer utopia—a world in the Pretty Little Liars extended cinematic universe where LGBTQ people are everywhere, and powerful, and hot. And I want to live there.

Set in dewy, woodsy Oregon at an elite university called Beacon Heights, Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists has all the same tricks as its namesake—devious young adults, scheming parents, blackmail, backstabbing, and obviously, gays. So far, two episodes have aired and I’ve counted six queer characters, four of which are major players. The queer Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse) returns as a teaching assistant at the college and is allegedly still in a relationship with Emily (Shay Mitchell) despite her absence in the cast. Janel Parrish also returns as Mona Vanderwaal and is joined by Sofia Carson as Ava, Sydney Park as Caitlin, Eli Brown as Dylan, and Chris Mason as Nolan. Dylan is gay and Nolan is bisexual—or maybe just fucks whoever he needs to in order to gain power. And Caitlin has two moms.

But the thing that hooked me wasn’t just how gay the show is, but how brazen it is in its queerness. For example: In the first episode, Nolan, the saboteur du jour, attempts to blackmail Caitlin. He shows her a picture of one of her moms—the who’s a US Senator gunning for president—cheating on her spouse with a man. Before Nolan saunters away into the starry night, he quips, “Guess two moms don’t always make a right.” The audacity of that line—the audacity!!

The Perfectionists murders the trope of the depraved bisexual, in that, if everyone is a depraved bisexual, then no one is really a depraved bisexual. In this utopia of sabotage and same-sex desire, everyone is evil, power-hungry, at least a little gay, and like Gretchen Wieners’ hair, full of secrets. Queerness isn’t just present in this show, it’s common.

In fact, every time there wasn’t a queer twist, I was surprised—transitively, the heterosexual plot lines in this show are the real twists. That Ava and Caitlin haven’t hooked up yet is mind-boggling. The show is adapted from a novel by Sara Shepard, the same author behind Pretty Little Liars, and I’m not sure if Ava and Caitlin’s romantic lives will intersect, but if they don’t, it’d be the most jaw-dropping plot line in this show about murder yet.

In this fantasy land, queer people are senators, murderers, scammers, or are married and have children with Shay Mitchell. I’m not sure how one becomes so emboldened to write a show like this—one that airs in 2019, yet opens on an orchestral cover of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” and peddles quips like free-flowing water—but god damnit, it’s inspiring.

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In 2010, when Emily Fields kissed Mya in a photo booth on Pretty Little Liars, it was the first time I had seen a storyline about queer high school girls finding love. It changed my life. People have roasted this franchise to the high heavens for as long as its cheesy storylines and murderous schemes have been on TV. And The Perfectionists just heighten on that camp. But know this: There is no other show as audacious and swanky and purely itself as The Perfectionists, which is like a serialized erotic thriller made specifically for horny queer teens. And for that, I’m thankful.

I was a part of a generation that needed to see teens having gay relationships and solving crimes they had no business solving. The next generation waits eagerly. For them, and for us, I’d have to recommend Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists. I guess what I’m saying is: Never change, I. Marlene King.