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Showrunner Marlene King on Pretty Little Liars’ Confusing Weather and Its Many Older Men

Something has been missing from our lives these last three months. Fortunately, ABC Family operates with the opposite logic of the AMC model (eight episodes, wait an entire year) and has brought Pretty Little Liars back tonight after a very short hiatus. Tomorrow, we will pick up with our patented, super-scientific Pretty Little Power Rankings. But first we had a few questions that only the ruler of the PLL universe could answer. Why does anyone even like Ali, a pathological liar who is more devoted to her curling iron than she is to her friends? Is there a plan to solve all these mysteries, or are the writers just making it up as they go along? And is it fall or winter or what? Marlene King, creator and showrunner (and screenwriter of the coming-of-age classic Now and Then), tried her best to answer.

When did you realize that the show was connecting with so many people?
The book series already had a social media following, and the book fans were really passionate and social media savvy. When we were making the pilot, they started finding us. For 24 hours before the show aired, we were a trending topic worldwide. We knew we’d found this material people were really passionate about.

I feel like I was lucky, because I became a fangirl of the books. I felt like I identified with the young people in that way. I knew what was juicy about it. Early on, I kept using the word delicious. I’m not sure if anybody really knew what it meant, but I did. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously; the show should be a thrill ride. And unlike the books, what we did change was, at least in the first four books, the girls were fighting a lot. They weren’t brought together. We started the pilot with the girls very separate, but very quickly got them together. Our goal was to have these girls be united.

Well, Emily, Aria, Spencer, and Hanna are together. But Ali is a monster. How were any of them friends with her?
I think the Ali we know, we got to know in flashbacks. That’s sort of an exaggerated version of how they saw her. We only saw the negative. So now that she’s alive and back, it’ll be interesting to see [what happens with] having her come back to Rosewood, having her come back to the town. Every actor on this show is dying to have a scene with her. [There’s an] Ali/Caleb scene; those are two characters have never met. We’re having her have scenes with the parents, and her own father. And she goes back to school. Ali going back to Rosewood High is just huge. Everything she does is a new experience for us. Because everything but the Halloween episode is entirely flashbacks.

Would you ever do an episode that’s just flashbacks?
We haven’t yet, and I felt like [the season four finale] was, in some ways, a big flashback episode, with Ali telling everyone what happened to her the night she went missing.

You grew up in small towns, right? Is the Rosewood of the show based at all on your memories of those places?
Until I was 12, I lived in Winchester, Indiana. Then my parents divorced and we moved to Greenville, Ohio … The Rosewood in the books was a much wealthier community, so I think the one we created for the TV show is probably closer to the towns I grew up in … It really is Small Town USA, and we wanted it to be relatable to people who live between New York and L.A.

Who do you think of as the audience for this show? Is it an older crowd than you expected?
It’s definitely reaching an older audience than we expected, and a younger audience. Especially this year, it feels like 10-year-olds are starting to watch. And I find women in their forties and fifties coming up to me all the time telling me they found the show through their daughter and niece and are just loving it … [When I write,] I honestly feel like it’s just for me. If I’m writing it with a smile on my face, or one of our writers is pitching me a story and I’m going, “Yes! Yes!” — if I love it and I’m enthusiastic about it, then our fans will too.

On a scale of “we make everything up as we go along” to “everything is plotted out, down to the very last episode, ever,” how much of a plan do you have for writing the series?
When it comes to the mystery stories, they’re plotted out very carefully very far in advance and we don’t waver from those stories. We do not deviate from them at all. When it comes to the character arcs, and the emotional paths that the girls and the guys take along the way, we kind of take that as it comes. We let the girls dictate that in a way; we see how people connect [and if they do], we’ll play that longer. So we’re flexible when it comes to the emotional arcs and rigid about the mystery arcs.

What was a moment like that, when two actors had chemistry, or someone turned out to be funnier than you expected, and you wrote to cater to it?
The first one that comes to mind is Spencer and Toby. We had one episode where we thought it would be interesting if Spencer volunteers to tutor Toby in French so she could get information. And the chemistry they had was so interesting, we wanted to push it toward a romantic place.

What about the Ezra-Aria relationship? It feels like the show wants us to treat them as this OTP but obviously he is totally age-inappropriate for her. Is that something that, looking back, you would do differently?
I wouldn’t do it differently because it was very true to the books. At one point in the books, he goes to jail, I think. But that fan base that we were getting to know while making the pilot, it was really apparent to us that even back then they called themselves the Ezrians. They were very invested in this couple. So it started as a couple we respected because we knew they had a hardcore fan base in the books. It’s interesting, they do feel like they’re soul mates to me, in some way, not to say they have to stay together forever, and yes, it was taboo from the beginning. It felt with that story line, we were trying to stay true to the books. We knew that Spencer was going to cheat with her sister’s fiancé, and Emily was gay, and [Ezra] was Aria’s original secret.

It seems like all the girls on the show are either dating or hooking up with people who are way, way, older than they are. Is that something you all are doing on purpose, or do you just look up one day in the writers' room and realize “Oh wait, everyone is dating a twenty-eight year old guy?”
We realize it and we comment on it, and executives will comment on it, “Oh, another older man.” But I think the girls have been exposed to so much, they’ve seen so much, they’ve lived such mature lives. And that’s a bit of the wish-fulfillment aspect of the show — they reach a little higher than the viewers would be reaching. So after Aria’s had this adventurous, exciting relationship with Ezra, when she tries to date a high school guy, is that interesting to her? Because she’s been living that crazy secret, on this roller coaster of emotion. I think it goes back to that emotional wish-fulfillment aspect of the show: Our fans are living vicariously through these girls.

I guess when I was a teenager, I was watching Buffy. And Angel was, like, 250 years old. So this is really not so out there. Even though these girls are supposed to be 16.
I think of them as 16 going on 30.

One of the in-jokes that the commenters and I have about the show is that we have no idea what time of year it is. It’s like, “Emily is wearing shorts, Spencer is in a sweater, could be spring, could be fall, who knows?” What is the deal with time on this show?
There’s a story line coming up in season five where somebody enrolls in a certain school, I’ll say, and then they’re graduating really quickly and the network was like, “Really?” I’m like, “Yes! It was an accelerated program.” Time has become this magic element in the show. For PLL, it moves very, very quickly, and that seems to be working for us. I justify it as, we’re kind of in a timeless place right now. There will come a time where the girls graduate, and have a summer break, and I hope that we end at that point. I want the show to end when it’s still really relevant and still growing and shocking and surprising people.

Do you know how many seasons you’ll do?
In my mind, I haven’t put an exact time limit on that. I think we’ll know when we’ve told as many stories as we can. We know what the last twelve episodes are going to be, and if we ever feel like we’re just vamping, that’s when it’s time to stop.

Is there such a thing as a too over-the-top idea for Pretty Little Liars? Have you ever vetoed any ideas for being too outrageous?
We have this fictitious show that, if somebody pitches something and we like it but it feels like it’s too outlandish for PLL, we say it belongs on a show called Strawberry Patch Lane, if we feel like it’s ultimately cheesy as opposed to shocking or engaging.

What kind of pitches do you reject?
It usually has to do with someone getting pregnant, or a pregnancy scare, or Mona flying a helicopter. And I’m like: Strawberry Patch Lane. And it was me who had the idea that A should escape off the rooftop [in the season four finale] by jumping onto a helicopter ladder. And I had to Strawberry Patch Lane my own idea.

Photo: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images