Here at the offices of the Daily Dandizette (the living room) Pretty Little Liars is a staff favourite. While some teen shows try to be hip and “with it” by chasing trends and dating themselves immediately with au current pop culture references, PLL has always felt out of time. Its central town of Rosewood is a lot like Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow if you replace dance marathons with film noir film festivals and whimsy with murder. We marvel at the adventures of besties Spencer, Aria, Emily and Hannah as they navigate the perils of high school and the murder of their best friend. It’s the kind of trashy genre fare that teen TV does well these days. And yet the plot twists and melodrama always take a backseat to the more sartorial aspects of the show, so it was no surprise that the show just went straight up noir homage for an entire episode.
Back in September, while I was working away at my Snow White costume, I perused Netflix in the hopes of finding some mindless TV show to play in the background of my sewing. I decided to put on Pretty Little Liars. I had heard the title before, but I basically knew nothing about the show. I was quite surprised to find a few episodes in that I was more focused on my mindless TV show than my actual sewing!
Pretty Little Liars has its issues, it’s not a perfect show: it tends to spin its wheels (as is common in most North American TV) and draw out a season into 24 episodes, when it easily could have been three. But aside from that, it is the kind of show I’d like to see more on TV. The show draws heavily on Hitchcock, notably one Halloween episode when the main characters are caught unwittingly in the story of Psycho. Despite its shortcomings (as mentioned above), this show does not dumb down for an audience that probably misses half the old Hollywood horror/thriller references.
So, the moment I heard about “Shadow Play”, I was excited. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, “Shadow Play” went beyond the neo-noir genre and straight into the noir! It pays a homage to the noir genre in a way that actually seamlessly blends into the actual plot of the story, and it’s not poking fun either. This is a serious noir genre episode. The episode drew inspiration from Laura, Cat People, The Big Combo, and several Orson Welles’ projects. Serious attention is given to chiaroscuro lighting. I’d say the only fault of the episode is that sometimes the actors fall flat, not able to shape their delivery of the lines in a way that suites the mood of the genre, but which would otherwise be fine in a normal episode of PLL.
For those of you who follow the show, Spencer is the only one of the quartet who bothered with historical accuracy when dressing up for an historic ball. She is the smart one, after all. By contrast, Aria thought it would be nice to wear her underwear over her dress. So it was nice to see the episode stay true to her character’s sense of being right, damn it, by accurately recreating the genre. The integrity with which the creators approached the episode is admirable. It wasn’t just a pastiche of well-worn noir tropes; in the costumes, hair, make-up, cinematography, and set design, it was a love letter to the genre.
Also, if the show is trying to say that taking drugs will turn your life into a stylized film noir, it’s not exactly the most effective anti-drug message.