Of all the characters in the Pretty Little Liars universe, it makes sense that its two most batshit denizens, Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse) and Mona Vanderwaal (Janel Parrish), have spun off together in their very own show. Faking their deaths, reigning over stalking empires, hitting their enemies with sedans — these young ladies have done it all!
But in The Perfectionists, which premieres on Freeform on Wednesday, Alison and Mona are more interested in the art of redemption than in crafting jewelry made out of human teeth. The series begins a few years after PLL’s finale: Alison is teaching at a Yale-esque university out West, thanks to the scheming of Mona, who arranged the job through her role in the school’s admissions department. Their knife-wielding reunion is short-lived, though, when an affluent student is murdered, setting in motion even more secrets and lies, but hopefully much less betrayal.
Earlier this week, Pieterse and Parrish met Vulture for lunch to discuss what it was like to return home to the franchise that made them stars. (Turns out, it was a very easy decision to say yes to PLL and Perfectionists showrunner I. Marlene King: “If she had an idea for anything,” Parrish gushed, “I would say yes.” ) They also discussed why Alison and Mona should really be trusted this time, what happened to Mona’s Parisian hostages in the PLL finale, and why they’re like an “old married couple.”
This show has filled my Pretty Little Liars and Twin Peaks void!
Janel Parrish: Amazing. I’ve likened the show to Twin Peaks before. A small town, everyone’s a bit suspicious, who can you trust?
When Mona and Alison finally reunite, the line that stands out is how their relationships always “came back to trust.” When you two were approached for a spinoff, how did you know I. Marlene King’s vision for the show was something you two wanted to be a part of?
Sasha Pieterse: Marlene has such a strong vision and knows how to balance the hyperreality with the darkness. I knew whatever she was going to create was going to be worth it.
JP: Marlene is a genius and I would follow her anywhere. If she had an idea for anything, I would say yes.
Did Marlene explain her vision of pairing you two together?
SP: I found out Marlene was considering doing a spinoff in the sixth season. She wanted to know if I was interested, and of course I was.
JP: I came onboard toward the end of the final season. Marlene came and asked me to take a walk around the soundstage and told me, “I have this idea, I think it’s going to happen; how’d you like to not leave Mona behind and join Sasha in another show?” She didn’t tell me the details.
SP: Marlene read [Sara Shepard’s novel] The Perfectionists and loved it, and it reminded her of Pretty Little Liars. She had already established that Alison was teaching, and that sparked her idea. A suicide happened in this little town, it sounds awfully suspicious, and Alison is always attracted to that. Why not have her teach in this weird town? And naturally, Mona is always mixed up in trouble.
JP: She can’t help it!
SP: Alison is grown up and facing new challenges. She’s trying to be a better person, a better wife, and a better mother.
JP: There’s an Alison, but this time there’s a guy. He dies. Who did it?
SP: We’re putting our crazy past behind us and becoming better people.
There’s a natural skepticism to any spinoff, as fans often carry a “but it’s not the original” mind-set. Did you have any hesitations?
SP: That was my only concern. What’s fun about the show is that you don’t have to watch PLL to understand what’s going on. When I started reading the scripts, I realized Marlene had done such a good job opening up a new world and keeping all the fun stuff about PLL without copying it or making it feel like everything was going to happen all over again. It’s a very different mystery, and that makes it scarier. Even though Alison and Mona have so much wisdom and discretion with this type of thing, they still don’t know what they’re dealing with or know how bad it’s going to get.
JP: It’s PLL times a million. We’re honoring the old show while adding to it.
Would you actually consider Alison and Mona to be friends now?
SP: I do, too. For multiple reasons. They appreciate each other and they need each other in a lot of ways. Sometimes they don’t have a choice.
JP: They’ve been through a lot together. They have an insane history. They hold each other accountable and are very honest with each other. Alison could say, “We’re not doing this anymore!” And Mona can just be like, “Really, you can’t bullshit me.”
SP: We’re not afraid to tell each other what we think and we definitely keep each other in check.
JP: We’re really like an old married couple.
Ha, I love that comparison.
JP: The more you watch it, the more you’ll see it. We’ll start a conversation super friendly and one of us will just be like, “God! No! Ugh!”
SP: There’s a little bit of domestic abuse.
JP: There is a little bit of that, when Ali gets to slap me in the face.
SP: You slapped me first, to be fair.
Let me just say, I’m surprised Mona’s hostages in Paris escaped. That was the perfect way to end her PLL run.
JP: I’m waiting to hear more about this. I hope there was an epic escape and she tries really hard to get them back. We need a flashback.
SP: I want to see the shady shit that happened.
When Alison arrives at Beacon Heights, she says she wants to “leave the mean girl” behind her, while Mona insists she needs “a fresh start” after her Parisian misadventures. Should we believe both of them?
JP: They’re being truthful.
SP: Definitely. I think they’re being honest.
JP: And that’s what helps them start a friendship. They thought they’ve left this darkness behind them, and they’re like, “Look, we’re grown up now. This is our chance to start fresh. Let’s help each other through it.” That’s when they realize they have more in common than not.
SP: Despite the fact that you tried to kill me a few times.
JP: You did some stuff to me, too!
SP: Shit, yeah, I was pretty evil.
JP: Mona is a control freak. She’s not trying to play dark games anymore or maintain a dollhouse, but in some ways, she gets to be in charge of who gets to come to this town and prestigious school. And she loves that.
SP: At first I thought, Huh, Alison is a teacher? Did she even go to high school? I think it’s perfect for her because she has an enormous amount of wisdom and discretion.
JP: She has lived a lot of lives.
SP: She’s obsessed with literature and has always paralleled her life with other people she’s read or learned about in history. It makes perfect sense to want to inspire kids in a different way through the things she’s learned. The first author she asks her class to read is Agatha Christie. That is telling of the ways she thinks about life.
Mona tells Alison that she brought her to Beacon Heights because the school needed a new teacher. But do you think she also wanted a friend?
JP: That’s part of it. But I also think she really, really thought Alison could come and help these kids. I don’t think there’s an ulterior motive behind it.
SP: It was a little selfish in a way, but I don’t think it’s because Mona wants to do any harm.
JP: She’s trying. It’s always going to be hard for her to trust other people.
SP: What I love about Mona is that she’s complicated, but very simple at the same time. Mona has always wanted to be accepted and needed.
JP: And loved.
SP: The way she went about it was questionable, but all she ever wanted was simple things out of life.
Does lingering trauma or PTSD influence your characters’ decisions? It’s obvious Alison is upset that she uprooted her life away from her family, while Mona frequently recites affirmations to calm herself down. I kind of forgot it’s still life after “A” for them.
SP: Alison is always trying to question why she’s doing the things she’s doing. Yeah, she misses her kids and her wife. Her personal life is very complicated. Part of the reason she goes to Beacon Heights isn’t necessarily to run away. She wants to get a degree to teach at Hollis back in Rosewood. Yes, she’s leaving her kids, but it’s very temporary. She’s doing it for the benefit of the family.
JP: There’s PTSD, for sure. When things start to happen to Mona that are similar to the past, her PTSD makes her mad as opposed to fearful. Things that happen in the show parallel moments from PLL, and you see us panic and look at each other like, How the hell is this happening again? Why is darkness still following us?
In the pilot’s final scene, we get a zoom-in shot of Mona’s brain when she yells at herself in a mirror … and there are people responding to her, Black Mirror–style. How should we interpret that?
SP: There’s a lot we don’t understand yet, either.
JP: We know there’s an answer, but we’re not 100 percent certain about all the details. I think Mona’s speaking to somebody.
SP: This is all speculation from us. It’s very much possible that Mona has friends on the inside and it’s more complicated than it’s made out to be.
It’s interesting how technology has evolved with The Perfectionists. Before, “A” illicitly stalked people into submission. But now, even though tech is still a Big Brother–esque villain, it’s legal and everyone on campus has approved of its use.
JP: I find it even creepier.
SP: How many people are involved in this? Why are they watching? Why do they have access to so much information?
JP: It’s a legit fear. Somebody could be listening to you at all times.
SP: In your bathroom, in your house, in your smartphones. The abuse of it is very creepy and questionable. Just like Black Mirror, it seems like this is just around the corner for every town in America. It’s weird, but possible.
Should we expect any PLL cameos or Rosewood flashbacks?
JP: As of now, no. Some people get mentioned, though.
SP: We don’t even any get any flashbacks.
JP: I want some Parisians flashbacks!
SP: It would be really interesting to see Mary Drake come back. Marlene and I have talked about that. Not only because of Mona holding her captive but also because she’s my aunt.
JP: Can we pitch this? Season-two finale?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.