Is Summer School going to be the downfall of Pretty Little Liars? (Episode 3 review)

Some of the charms inherent to this franchise are mystery and tension, yet season 2 seems desperate to eliminate those as much as possible.
Courtesy: Max
Courtesy: Max /

It isn't terribly hard to understand why the original Pretty Little Liars series drew audiences in, nor is it hard to understand how those same concepts were reinvented and elevated by Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin. What is incomprehensible is how it went from a complicated, intricately woven first season to a disappointingly clunky second with Pretty Little Liars: Summer School.

Some of the charms inherent to this franchise are mystery and tension, yet this season seems desperate to eliminate those as much as possible. The structure of each episode is ineffective, and the mystery feels less enticing each episode.

Furthermore, it's been critical to see distinct characters in this franchise. Hanna, Aria, Spencer, and Emily were all completely different characters who reacted to situations in unique ways. Imogen, Tabby, Faran, Noa, and Mouse were well-crafted in season 1, but this season has turned them into caricatures, more driven by the episode's plot than their own experiences since the first episode.

The newest episode of Pretty Little Liars: Summer School, "Chapter Thirteen: Sweet Sixteen," released on May 16, 2024, and it is not a good sign for the show moving forward. The first two episodes had their issues, but they felt like they were at least building to something. Episode 3 seems focused on not going anywhere at all. Just like Mouse, the audience was promised a surprise party, only to be faced with a disappointing plot instead. Spoilers below.

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The plot of "Sweet Sixteen" is poorly structured

It's hard to reasonably capture everything that happened in season one because there was so much plot driving the show forward, but that strategy has been largely discarded this season in favor of clunky filler supplementing a few interesting plot points. Nowhere is that more obvious than in "Sweet Sixteen."

In this episode, the audience has to experience each plot point multiple times. This starts with Mouse telling the others about her video call from the previous night, but it continues to happen whenever the characters have down time.

For example, the audience watches Faran struggle at work, just to then see her tell Henry about it. Likewise, Imogen and Tabby tell each other how they lashed out at their male coworkers just a few minutes after those very scenes are shown.

This might be fine if it helped develop character dynamics, or if one character offered a different perspective, but that's not what happens. Instead, audiences are just forced to watch recaps of scenes they already watched, seemingly just to fill time.

Furthermore, most of the characters have nearly identical plotlines, so it feels that much more repetitive: fight with coworkers, talk it out with someone else, try to apologize (only to be apologized to), and move forward with a stronger bond between the Liar and their coworker.

Making both of these problems more obvious, this episode has a nauseatingly slow pace, as it tries to show what's happening to every Liar every day. We see each of the girls at school, then work, then home, then back at school and then work again. Little of note happens in several of these scenes, but they exist to make sure no character is forgotten.

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The Liars have become too similar

Worse than just having repetitive plot points, the characters seem to be reacting to them in almost identical ways, which is both boring and disappointing, given how distinct the characters were in the first season. Imogen and Tabby had almost exactly the same conflicts with their co-workers, which makes little sense with how differently they managed their assaults in the past.

Noa and Faran then had extremely similar plots at their own jobs, trying to assert authority and maintain the rules despite less-than-reasonable coworkers making their jobs harder. There was at least some variety in how they managed their problems, but both ultimately tried to appease their coworker, while taking responsibility themselves.

Mouse is currently the only one of the main Liars who seems to have her own arc, though even she is struggling to maintain her relationship amidst the secrets and lies, just like Faran and Noa. But her distinct story lines don't feel consistent with her character, as this level of paranoia and obsession was Imogen's M.O. in season 1.

The way Mouse handles her grandmother's actions could be a high point for her character and the season, but it'll have to start happening soon. Otherwise, that unique element will just get added to the vague suspicion around the new characters and lose the opportunity to create an interesting new family dynamic in PLL: Summer School.

It's fine to establish parallel characters or parallel arcs, but if the characters are all reacting the exact same way, it gets boring. The fact that this problem was also present in the second episode doesn't bode well for the rest of the season.

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How did such a good show make such a bad episode?

This series had so many high points in its first season, but the quality has drastically decreased so far in Pretty Little Liars: Summer School. This is a shame, because the actors and the designers are doing the best they can, creating bright moments in an otherwise weak episode.

There are still some fun moments in "Sweet Sixteen," but they overwhelmingly come from the chemistry between actors, the production value on locations like the Rose E Ricotta, and the colorful outfits that the Liars wore to the Xanadu-themed party.

This is the third disappointing episode so far this season, so it's worth asking how a show that was so good fell so quickly. The writing team is primarily the same, but the bulk of this season's episodes only have one credited writer, as opposed to the two that were common in season 1.

We can't say for sure what happened in the writers room, but it doesn't seem like the same level of collaboration is at work here. Perhaps the solo writers simply can't handle as many plot lines per episode as fans have come to expect.

Another possibility is that Summer School was a casualty of the WGA strikes last year. The show's filming was delayed because of the strikes, which might explain why it feels rushed at times. It seems likely that the writers were pushed to finish the scripts before they were ready after returning to work, which would explain the repetitious structure.

Regardless of what caused the past two episodes, it's important that the writing find a more interesting structure soon. Otherwise, it's likely that Pretty Little Liars: Summer School will be the last season for this group of Liars.

VERDICT: This episode only includes two plot lines worth caring about, with one that was copy-and-pasted onto three other characters. Repetition is going to be PLL: Summer School's downfall.

Pretty Little Liars: Summer School streams new episodes Thursdays on Max.

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