ABC Family’s sudsy teen mystery drama Pretty Little Liars begins its second season tonight. The show, based on a series of YA books, follows the exploits of four girls as they grapple with their families and love lives, all while trying to figure out who murdered their friend Alison and being messed with by the shadowy, text-happy figure (or figures) named A who did the deed. We spoke with the series showrunner Marlene King about the series, how long A’s identity will remain a secret (five more seasons, guys), and whether Aria and Ezra are having sex.
When you were first conceiving of how to turn Pretty Little Liars into a TV show, were you thinking of shows like Twin Peaks and Lost, shows that have a central mystery?
Well, I never would have thought about this show in a Lost sense until people started using Lost as a way to describe this show, which I think is hugely flattering, but I would have never thought about that. Twin Peaks, yes, when I first pitched to ABC Family what direction I would go, Twin Peaks was definitely part of our vocabulary.
When you pitched it, did you have a set amount of episodes in mind, and has that expanded because the show has done so well in the ratings?
Originally, I thought it was going to be twelve episodes per year for two seasons. I thought, Oh, how manageable my life will be. I’ll get to be at home for half the year. And then we were picked up for 22 the first year and 24 this year, so it is a lot. In my mind, it was always going to be, If the show was popular, it would be five years. I feel like we can tell this story over the course of five seasons and have plenty of story to tell.
Five seasons, each being 24 episodes?
Five seasons of 24 episodes.
So you are planning on not wrapping up the story line about the identity of A for almost 100 more episodes?
In my perfect world, we can do that.
You didn’t think you could just solve this mystery and move on to another?
That’s correct. I think what Sara Shepard did so well in her books, and continues to do with yet another three coming out, is continue to reinvent new mysteries within the world these characters live in without giving up who killed Alison. We have two core mysteries always going, which is who are they and who killed Alison. They may not necessarily be the same person or persons. Within that we are constantly bringing new mysteries, little mysteries, in along the way.
Are you concerned at all about audience fatigue with that?
Not yet. People love to tune in, and they’re looking for clues and little bits and pieces of that puzzle along with who killed Alison. The mystery is only 30 percent of each episode. Seventy percent of it is the world these girls live in and their love stories, their hardships, their hates, and difficulties. That, I think, or I hope, will keep us going for much longer than one or two seasons.
When you were breaking the story initially did you have conversations about going the Veronica Mars or Desperate Housewives route and finishing the mystery in one season, and getting a new one for the second?
We debated … In the books, there are two As. Sara Shepard gives up an A after book four and reinvents A in book five. We thought if she could do that credibly in the books than we could do that credibly in the show. We’ve found that we don’t need to do that. Knowing who our one A is will take us to the end of the road.
And five seasons is your preferred end?
Yeah, I think five years because I know the structure of the book so well and in my mind I mapped those out over five seasons. I know the beginnings and the ends of five seasons. I don’t necessarily know what goes in the middle of all of them but I have five ends and five beginnings in my mind. If it goes beyond five, I’m screwed.
Would you let it go beyond that?
I’m sure we could. It would take more than a few clever people to sit in a room for a while to figure out what that sixth season would be. That again depends on if Sara re-creates that mystery in an incredible way in her books. That might open that world for us as well.
Have you gotten any bad reaction about the mystery being dragged out, or anything else?
Only in the very beginning when we cast the four Pretty Little Liars, we did not cast them based on the physical descriptions that they were give in the books. We thought people were just livid with us on Facebook and Twitter. They were just mortified. They thought we were Satan. The books had the rabid following that now we have as a show, so the fans of the books were very, very upset with us. Sara Shepard, the creator of the books, met with the Pretty Little Liars and started very quickly telling her fans that she embraced these girls and loved them as their characters. That was really the only thing that was negative. As soon as they saw the pilot, they made the shift along with Sara.
Have you gotten any more serious blowback on the relationship between Aria, a high-school student, and Ezra, her English teacher, in particular?
The majority of the feedback we have gotten is very positive. I think ABC Family has received a little bit of flack from it more than we have personally. It came from the books and it wasn’t something we invented here. It was invented by the author and that has kind of saved us from getting some of that negative feedback.
In the writers’ room, do you talk about not wanting them to have sex?
We probably say “we wish we could show this” or “we wish we could show that,” and there will come a time when we can show more with Ezra and Aria.
Does that mean you think they are having sex and you’re just not talking about it?
That’s one question I just leave up to the viewers. I answer a lot of questions about the show but that’s one for now … I will answer that probably by the end of this season. But by then the answer will be very apparent to our audience. I think it’s fun leaving that out there. There were people who watched the pilot and thought Aria and Ezra had sex in the bathroom. I did not think that. My mom thought they did and I was like, “Mom! She’s not that kind of a girl.”
Is there a story line you started doing for the show and realized it wasn’t working at all?
I think our only misstep — and some of our fans really loved it, but to me it felt like it wasn’t really our show — in our first ten episodes, there were moments where people thought, Oh, we’ll do this because teen girls love it, like somebody breaking into a dance. You only have to see it once to know that’s not this show.
Have there been relationships that you didn’t even think about writing until you saw the actors together?
That’s the perfect example of Toby and Spencer. We have just put them through the ringer. They were both really sort of damaged characters and I felt like, let’s give them some happiness. They found each other and it’s really working. They’ve become our most soulful couple. Originally, Toby was only supposed to be on a few episodes. In the books he killed himself, and so when we brought back … that’s something we love to do is pay homage to the books and really sort of follow a through-line, a story line that the book follows and then really twist it at the end, so that was a perfect example. In the book, Toby goes missing after homecoming or prom, I don’t remember what it was, but for us it was homecoming. We kept him missing for four episodes so when he popped up in our summer finale it was a huge surprise because everyone thought he was dead.
Characters disappear on your show all the time. I’m thinking of Emily’s first girlfriend or Lucas, who were on and then they sort of get written out.
That’s just sort of the business part of the show. Our cast is so big that we can’t service everybody in every episode. That’s part of the juggling is trying to keep these characters alive in this world without seeing them in every episode. That’s really the challenge of the business part of running this show and using that part of your brain, just trying to keep that stuff alive when you can’t use those people in every episode because you don’t have the budget to do that.
What do you watch on TV?
A lot of scary things, actually. I fell in love with The Walking Dead. I love Nurse Jackie and a lot of the shows on cable. True Blood. Also Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl. I like the teen shows, too. I think I’m sort of stuck in the teen world at heart.
Did you like those teen shows before you were making one?
I did. It was so funny because when I met [Vampire Diaries executive producer] Bob Levy I knew the Vampire Diaries like the back of my hand and he was like, “Oh, I have the next episode with me.”
Is there another kind of show you’d like to make?
I would love to do a more grown-up version of Pretty Little Liars, a character-driven murder mystery that lives in a more adult world. I think you might be able to do a little bit more edgy material than we’re allowed to do on Pretty Little Liars, although I love this show. I think that would be really fun. I love the world of single-camera, 30-minute shows.
Yeah. I’d love to do a modern All in the Family show. People who are socially conscious but funny.
Pretty Little Liars doesn’t strike me as particularly being socially conscious.
No, we were surprised, actually. I always thought the show didn’t have any moral of the story, but we were really thrilled and surprised when in season one Emily’s coming out became such an important part of the story. I don’t want to give it away, but we have another valuable, socially redeemable story line that we’re going to tell this year as well with one of our characters. That’s become our goal, that each season we can find one topic where we can contribute and maybe help teens in that area.