Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker Magazine, American Cinematographer, and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
Over the course of its seven seasons from 2010 to 2017, Pretty Little Liars was one of those real rarities in television: a long-running series that never stopped getting more absorbing and compelling. The story of five high-school friends whose secrets threaten to come out when one of them disappears (and is – spoiler alert – ultimately found dead … and then alive again), the show hooked me immediately with its combination of witty dialogue (spoken by the best ensemble of young actors since Gossip Girl), unpredictable and ingenious plotting, and elegantly lit and composed images.
As much as I enjoyed it, initially I didn’t see how the series could sustain its sense of invention and mystery beyond a season or two; it moved so fast and had so many clever ideas in its first year that I figured it had to burn out before long. Thankfully, creator I. Marlene King and her writing staff proved me wrong, expanding the mysteries and deepening the characterizations to turn Pretty Little Liars into a slyly subversive satire that was also genuinely empathetic toward its sometimes dastardly heroines – a cross between Douglas Sirk, Alfred Hitchcock and Mean Girls that was smart, moving, thrilling and funny.
Pretty Little Liars ended just when it should have, and the sting of its disappearance from the air was softened by the announcement that King had a spinoff in the works. The Perfectionists, which premieres on Freeform on March 20, isn’t so much a sequel – though a couple key characters do carry over from Pretty Little Liars – as a spiritual sibling, a tonally and visually similar murder mystery that takes the pleasures of Pretty Little Liars in new and exciting directions. It’s risky to make predictions for an entire series based on one episode (as of this writing I’ve only seen the pilot for The Perfectionists), but based on that first hour PLL fans like me can breathe easy – King and her collaborators, once again working from a book series by Sara Shepard, have already established a series of characters and relationships – gorgeously lensed by one of the best cinematographers in television, Larry Reibman – that seem strong enough to propel another seven seasons.
The direct line from Pretty Little Liars comes in the form of Sasha Pieterse and Janel Parrish reprising their roles as Alison and Mona; they’re now faculty members at Beacon Heights University, a college in a superficially idyllic Oregon suburb. The school’s ostensible mission is to turn its students into America’s best and brightest, which translates into a pressure-cooker situation where everyone is attempting to meet impossibly high standards and thus always on the verge of mentally snapping. It’s a great milieu for a murder mystery, one that King and director Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum exploit for all it’s worth by establishing a tense environment long before the thriller element kicks in; until relatively late in the game, the pilot isn’t a genre piece but a relationship drama about a group of college students whose academic stress is exacerbated by the secrets they’re all keeping. Rosenbaum employs a voyeuristic camera that adds to the sense of anxiety, drawing the audience into the characters’ fear of discovery; by the time the murder that will presumably drive the rest of the series occurs, we’re really primed for it.
I’m going to avoid any kind of detailed discussion of the plot, because I think The Perfectionists is best experienced cold, as I saw it, with no preconceived notions or awareness of what each characters is hiding. Yet one of the many things that’s special about the show is the fact that the pilot is even more absorbing on second viewing, when you know where it’s going – the precision of King and Shepard’s narrative construction and the subtle visual motifs Rosenbaum and Reibman employ suggest that The Perfectionists will be just as compulsively rewatchable as Pretty Little Liars was. Another reason for my optimism in this regard is the engaging ensemble of actors, each of whom is able to play the multiple levels of truth that King’s writing requires – it’s not easy portraying characters who are always withholding things from each other, themselves, and the audience without resorting to clichés or overly obvious indicating, but Evan Bittencourt, Eli Brown, Sofia Carson, Chris Mason and Sydney Park are uniformly pitch-perfect – and uniformly charismatic, with as much star power as the cast of the original Beverly Hills 90210. And speaking of star power, Melrose Place and Gossip Girl veteran Kelly Rutherford takes The Perfectionists to a whole other level as one of the town’s most powerful and manipulative women.
The chemistry between all of these players surpasses even that of the original Pretty Little Liars group, at least in that show’s early episodes. Most series, even good ones, take a while to find their footing, but the cast of The Perfectionists complements each other with the kind of lively ease that usually kicks in somewhere around season two or three. The Pacific Northwest setting helps in this regard, supplying a lot of the dreamy, moody quality the genre requires without the actors having to force it – the interplay between the performers and their environment allows for a broad range of tones from broad humor to anguished poignancy and everything in between. It all comes together in the climactic murder that threatens to expose the characters’ secrets and generate new ones in true PLL fashion; when that killing happens, the complicated and conflicted emotions experienced by the surviving characters generate even more anticipation in the viewer than the original Pretty Little Liars pilot did.
The Perfectionists is so deliciously intriguing, in fact, that I once again find myself wondering how its makers can plausibly keep it going. Yet since they’ve done it once before – and, based on this pilot, seem to have gotten better on every level – I’m feeling pretty confident that The Perfectionists is going to provide entertaining pleasures for many years to come.