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'Pretty Little Liars': Our Summer Guilty Pleasure

With its stylish stars and jaw-dropping cliff-hangers, this show is on everybody’s lips

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On ABC Family’s teen soap Pretty Little Liars, a glove can be a cute fashion accessory — or an ominous clue in a murder mystery. And the lone black leather glove in question on a recent visit to the series’ Burbank set is the kind a murderer — not a mall queen — might wear.

Specifically, it masks the identity of the elusive ”A,” an anonymous heckler who terrorizes Liars‘ four high school friends by threatening to spill their deepest secrets. Today the dirty deed involves depositing an unwanted present — a red flip phone — into the purse of one of our Little Liars, a move that will no doubt cause shock waves when it’s discovered. But just like that, the episode ends, and we’re left with a flurry of maddening queries: Whose phone is it? What havoc will it wreak? And of course: Who the hell is ”A”?

While most shows are lucky to pull off one juicy cliff-hanger a season, Pretty Little Liars delivers them in every episode, wrapped up in a bow of relatable friendships and quirky fashion. It’s that cocktail of Gossip Girl‘s sartorial acumen, Veronica Mars‘ brainteasing, and I Know What You Did Last Summer‘s thrills that has cemented the show as the hottest guilty pleasure in the teen universe.

Returning on June 14, Liars focuses on a tight-knit high school quartet — outspoken Spencer (Troian Bellisario), feisty Hanna (Ashley Benson), demure Emily (Shay Mitchell), and levelheaded Aria (Lucy Hale) — who became estranged after the disappearance of their clique’s queen, Alison, during a sleepover. When Alison’s body was discovered a year later, the remaining four regrouped, only to be tormented by the elusive ”A” via sinister texts and emails that have spilled secrets large (Aria’s dad’s affair) and small (Emily’s romantic dalliances as a lesbian). And he or she is not done yet.

Even the foursome — all of whom are, by the way, very pretty and little — dies with anticipation over the show’s mysteries. ”I always try and steal the scripts,” says Benson. ”I’m the one who’s always like, ‘I need to know right now what’s happening for this whole season!”’ In cooking up the show’s formula, exec producer I. Marlene King says, ”When we were talking about tone, we came up with one word: delicious.” Adds exec producer Oliver Goldstick: ”It’s mischievous. We don’t use this word much in America — it’s a British term — but the girls are naughty.”

America seems to like girls gone bad: Liars‘ season 1 finished with an average of 3.8 million viewers, up 15 percent from the first half, which aired last summer. (Interestingly, 55 percent of the viewers are over the age of 18.) The online buzz is even more impressive. Liars boasts 4.7 million fans on Facebook (a million more than ABC Family’s crown jewel, The Secret Life of the American Teenager), and after new episodes air, the show is regularly a trending topic on Twitter, besting True Blood, Glee, and The Walking Dead in the service’s TV category for all of 2010. Those benchmarks transcend traditional measures of television success, says Kate Juergens, executive VP of programming and development at ABC Family: ”We don’t have to wait for a rating, honestly.”

This multimedia success follows in the footsteps of what Alloy, the company that co-produces Liars, has achieved with two other young-adult novels-turned-TV soaps, Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries. While Liars is based on the book series by Sara Shepard that launched in October 2006 (the next installment, Twisted, will drop on July 5), producers have strayed where needed for story purposes. Several story lines from the novels that could be considered controversial were kept intact, like Aria secretly dating a teacher and Emily coming out as a lesbian, though a secondary character’s suicide and Emily’s trip to a gay-reform program were left on the bookshelves. ”The show does a really good job of pushing the envelope for the network and for our audience,” says Bellisario. ”That’s what keeps people tuning in — that it’s not particularly G-rated. We’re going to try to go as far as we can.”

In keeping with that mission, the end of last season found the leading ladies in tumult. The girls witnessed Ian (Ryan Merriman) — Spencer’s brother-in-law and Alison’s presumed killer — getting hanged in the town church, though his body disappeared minutes later. Season 2 picks up moments after the season 1 finale, says Hale. ”At the start of this season, the girls are figuring out: Did Ian really die? Because in the finale, it was up in the air. Was it all a hoax? Who planned this? Was it ‘A’? Is he ‘A’? There’s all these questions.” Since the girls’ story about Ian seems unlikely, their parents collectively send them to a therapist (Brotherhood‘s Annabeth Gish), who becomes a big part of the upcoming season.

The Liars should have plenty to discuss in therapy: This season, Alison’s brother, Jason (Drew Van Acker, taking over the role from Parker Bagley), returns to Rosewood; Aria’s relationship issues with her former teacher grow; Hanna’s estranged dad comes back to town; Emily gets some unexpected help from ”A” to avoid a move to Texas; and Spencer gets more serious with love interest Toby (Keegan Allen), despite the very loud protests of her overbearing parents. ”Last season was really about how what appears to be isn’t,” explains King. ”This season, there’s more to each episode, there’s more to each text [from ‘A’], there’s more to every character.”

All roads in Pretty Little Liars, however, lead to the mystery about Alison’s death and the identity of the sinister ”A.” But not everyone wants answers. ”I don’t ask the writers who ‘A’ is,” says Mitchell. ”I don’t want to know!” For those of us who prefer resolution, do the producers care to reveal when, exactly, ”A” will be unmasked? ”I don’t think you’re going to find out until the very last episode of the show,” admits King, who adds that she ”pretty much knows” the ending of the series. ”In the books, there is more than one ‘A.’ There’s an ‘A,’ and there becomes a second ‘A,’ so you never know.” And therein lies the fun.

Meet the Liars
Ashley Benson, 21
Hanna Marin
Who Is She? In the wake of pal Alison’s disappearance, the once-plump Hanna ascended to queen-bee status, and got a devoted lemming of her own, Mona (Janel Parrish).
Secrets Revealed Hanna helped cover up her mother’s (Laura Leighton) thievery and secretly housed a homeless Rosewood High student — whom she later spent the night with.
What’s Next An ex tries to get back in the picture, as does Hanna’s dad. ”Let’s just say Hanna’s home life is going to change a lot and someone will be moving in,” teases Benson. ”It could be my dad, it could be a boy, it could be a girl.”

Shay Mitchell, 24
Emily Fields
Who Is She? The good girl of the gang, Emily is a competitive swimmer whose military dad is planning to move the family to Texas for a year.
Secrets Revealed Emily coming out as a lesbian was a big revelation in season 1. But she caused even bigger waves when she took town pariah Toby (Keegan Allen) to homecoming.
What’s Next Emily gets a new love interest, but also has to cope with the idea of Texas — though things take a turn when ”A” gets involved. ”The thing with ‘A’ has always been to divide and conquer, so if ‘A’ wants to put Emily in Texas, Emily’s going to Texas,” Mitchell says. ”Emily is packing, that I can tell you.”

Troian Bellisario, 25
Spencer Hastings
Who Is She? The resident over-achiever has a family who doesn’t trust her.
Secrets Revealed Spencer has kissed two of her sister’s significant others, including brother-in-law Ian (Ryan Merriman).
What’s Next What happened in the church between Spencer and Ian will continue to haunt Spencer — and her family. Says exec producer Oliver Goldstick, ”Her relationship with her family goes through the wringer because of the Ian question.” Look for the truth to leak out by episode 4.

Lucy Hale, 22
Aria Montgomery
Who Is She? The group’s de facto leader has been reeling since her mother, Ella (Holly Marie Combs), moved out.
Secrets Revealed Actually, the fact that she was dating a teacher at Rosewood High never went public, but ”A” has made the threat more than once.
What’s Next While her relationship with teacher/writer Ezra (Ian Harding) seems steady, Hale teases, ”there is someone who catches Aria’s eye.”