One thing high school TV shows and long-game mystery TV shows have in common is a limited shelf life. The actors on high school shows age out of looking like teenagers (in large part because they were probably in their 20s when they were first cast to play tenth graders), and audiences have limited patience when it comes to solving mysteries. Another thing those two types of shows have in common is the unlikelihood that they’ll be able to move past their early concepts. It’s rare for a beloved high school show to make a successful leap to college or beyond. And it’s just as unusual for audiences to get invested in a second long-game mystery, after the initial one has been solved.
The original sexually self-aware dead blonde girl show, Twin Peaks, couldn’t sustain its momentum; and neither could its progeny, Veronica Mars. So it’s no surprise that Pretty Little Liars, the heir to both of those series, struggled to find its way in season 6B, after unveiling the answer it had been wildly zig-zagging toward for six years, and aging its characters into adulthood.
What is surprising — shocking, actually; and deeply disappointing; and, frankly, inexplicable — is the fact that Pretty Little Liars completely de-gayed itself in the process of leaping forward.
Queer women have always graded TV on a curve. We know, for example, that lesbian and bisexual characters are not going to enjoy the same kind of physical intimacy as the straight characters on the same show. Their hair will block their faces when they kiss, or the lights will be off, or they’ll be standing in shadows, or the shot will be wide, or their mouths will be closed, or the editor will be forced to cut away almost immediately after their lips touch. And we know that queer relationships aren’t going to get as much screen time as straight ones, or be given the same weight or importance. We know a lesbian or bisexual woman’s love interest will never be folded into the larger narrative of the show, the way a male love interest would.
All of those things have been true on Pretty Little Liars. Yes, Emily had handful of sweeping romantic moments during the five seasons the show took her love life seriously. I can count them off for you like the birth stories of my own children. The night Maya got sent away to rehab and Emily’s friends built a candled wonderland for them to say goodbye. The night Paige stumbled out of the closet and onto Emily’s window seat. The night Maya made Emily an imaginary underwater paradise to comfort her after she was kicked off the swim team. The night Emily caressed Paige’s face and told her not to look away as she confessed her feelings. The night Alison decided to stop pretending she was kissing Emily for practice. The night Paige flew away to Stanford. And, most notably, Paige and Emily’s night by the window in the 100th episode, a black and white fever dream.
And that’s the rub. Emily’s romantic scenes weren’t as frequent or intense as the ones between the other Liars and their boyfriends. Her girlfriends hardly ever participated in the mystery elements of the show, the way the boyfriends did. Her girlfriends hardly ever interacted with the other Liars, the way the boyfriends did. But look at that list: Her romances may not have been treated equally, but they were better than any lesbian teenager we’d ever seen on TV.
All of that changed when season six premiered. Showrunner Marlene King promised viewers that the main mystery would be solved for good by the end of season 6A, and even though the pacing and plotting became more determined, there was still plenty of room for romance between the Liars and the love interests that had been established for them in the show’s first season. They went to prom. They planned for their futures. They came together to make the final push toward unmasking A. Well, everyone except for Emily. Out of her three emotionally resonant love interests: one (Maya) was already dead, one (Paige) was already shipped off to college, and one (Alison) was in a universally loathed relationship with a male character whose presence took all the fire and energy and danger out of her once exciting personality.
Instead of allowing Emily the same emotional beats as the other three main characters and their longtime love interests, Emily was shoved into a last minute relationship with Sara Harvey, who arrived on the show at the very end of the fifth season, and only as a deus ex machina, a catch-all answer to some of the show’s most buzzed about unsolved mysteries. Sara was Red Coat. Sara was Black Widow. Sara was A’s accomplice. Sara was multiple unsatisfying answers, and she was also shoehorned in as Emily’s love interest to try to force some emotional weight onto her story.
Season 6B, which ended last night, did the unthinkable: It completely de-gayed Pretty Little Liars. The three main objectives of this season were for the Liars to find out the identity of their new torturer, to solve the mystery of who killed Charlotte, and to reconcile with their high school boyfriends while tap-dancing around their adult boyfriends. Emily had neither a high school girlfriend to return to, nor an adult girlfriend to tap-dance around. While romance featured more prominently in season 6B than ever before, Emily was not involved in a single romantic scene.
It’s been 24 episodes since Emily had a real love interest. Talia departed in “Bloody Hell,” with four episodes left to go in season five. The longest any other Liar has gone without a love interest is three episodes.
At the Pretty Little Liars panel at New York Comic Con last fall, someone asked the actresses what they would like to change about another character’s storyline. Ashley Benson, who plays Hanna, said that she’d give Emily a boyfriend. A ripple of nervous laughter spread through the room after she answered, not only because Emily had become one of TV’s most beloved and most important lesbian characters, but also because the room was filled with Emison (Alison and Emily) and Paily (Paige and Emily) shippers. I followed them on Twitter as they squealed their excitement while waiting to get into the panel, listened as the chatted happily in every corner of the auditorium about their favorite lesbian ship, and watched person after person ask about Alison and Emily’s future during the Q&A.
Ashley Benson’s answer troubled me at the time, but now I’m starting to wonder if she’d already realized what it took us a whole season to figure out: The only Liars with fan favorite, emotionally engaging relationships in season six were Liars with boyfriends.
The decision to de-gay Pretty Little Liars baffles me more than anything I have ever seen on television. There’s never been any traction on “family friendly” backlash against the lesbian relationships on the show. The loud and proud fandoms surrounding Emily and Alison, Emily and Paige, and Emily and Maya have made their pleas to the writing team as passionately as the straight couple’s fandoms. ABC Family (now Freeform) happily let Pretty Little Liars explore queer relationships for half a decade (including off-screen relationships alluded to between Shana and Paige, and Jenna and Shana; and a whole set dedicated to a lesbian bar). ABC Family even green lit multiple other shows and storylines with lesbian and bisexual characters after Pretty Little Liars‘ revolutionary success.
The Pretty Little Liars writing team engaged both inside the show (with shout-outs and inside jokes) and outside the show with the queer community that live-tweeted weekly with the #BooRadleyVanCullen hashtag. I, personally, have had dozens of conversations with this show’s writers, directors, and producers, in which they’ve expressed such joy about creating so many beloved queer characters. (Though, admittedly, I haven’t spoken to anyone on the creative team since I expressed outrage over their decision to create a trans villain and then murder her.)
For months I’ve been trying to figure out how and why Pretty Little Liars made this choice. Through the middle of season five, Pretty Little Liars featured more lesbian and bisexual characters than any show in TV history, besides The L Word. In the last 24 episodes, it has abandoned that identity — and the queer fans and queer critics who helped catapult it to success — completely. It turns out the biggest mystery of Rosewood might not be the identity of A, after all.