If you’ve never obsessed over who really killed Ali DiLaurentis or whether Amy belongs with her baby-daddy Ricky, congratulations — you’re probably old! And you’re definitely not watching ABC Family, which has found its niche with its two biggest hits, The Secret Life of the American Teenager and Pretty Little Liars. That niche, it seems, involves taking viewers as far away from reality as possible, but in very different ways.
Secret Life has been stretching its once-promising premise — teen gets pregnant, suffers consequences — for four seasons now, and it’s only getting more ludicrous. While MTV’s Teen Mom shows us the true pitfalls of young motherhood, on Secret Life teen mom Amy (Shailene Woodley) just plays a cozy brand of house with the heartthrobby Ricky (Daren Kagasoff). Instead of exploring the real setbacks such a couple might suffer, the show has piled on the melodrama with another teen pregnancy this season courtesy of Ricky’s ex Adrian (Francia Raisa) and Amy’s ex Ben (Ken Baumann). The production itself feels slapdash, and the characters constantly chatter out stilted, circular lines of dialogue but never actually do anything. (If people had sex on Secret Life half as often as they said the word sex, the show would have to be on Cinemax.) The rare genuinely affecting moments come when Amy and her friends are quiet long enough to feel something, as happened when Adrian and Ben lost their baby earlier this summer. The shame of it is, when things crack open this way it becomes clear that Secret Life‘s kids can act.
Pretty Little Liars, which is in its second season of unraveling the suspicious death of popular teen Ali and its implications for her four best friends, is, improbably, more grounded and realistic than Secret Life. And that’s despite its stylized take on murder mystery, complete with tropes like a nefarious blind girl, a presence known as A who sends the BFFs threatening text messages, and an endless parade of interchangeable cute boys. Silly, sure, but fun to watch. At least the dialogue is natural and sometimes even witty, while the rotating romantic entanglements have chemistry if not depth. This series feels like a teen version of Desperate Housewives when it was in its murderous heyday, thanks especially to some of the juiciest cliff-hangers on TV. Every time I swear I have better things to do than watch this show, I find myself drawn back, dying to know: Who is A? Will the girls ever solve Ali’s murder? And most importantly, how do they get their lip gloss so perfect? Secret Life: C Pretty Little Liars: B