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Pretty Little Liars: Summer School May Be the First Successful Teen Slasher Show

Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer struggled to find their footing on TV, but Max’s YA series continues to shine.
  • Bloody Rose in Pretty Little Liars: Summer School (Photo: Karolina Wojtasik/Max)
    Bloody Rose in Pretty Little Liars: Summer School (Photo: Karolina Wojtasik/Max)

    From Prom Night to Jennifer’s Body, teen slasher movies have always been a staple in the horror genre. Even if the films don’t always earn positive reviews from critics, viewers never seem to get tired of watching teenagers make painfully bad decisions (“Don’t open that door!”) and get chased through the woods by a masked killer who turns out to be someone in the friend group. 

    Curiously, however, the subgenre’s popularity hasn’t really translated to TV. There have been a few teen slasher show attempts like MTV’s Scream, Freeform’s Dead of the Summer, and Prime Video’s I Know What You Did Last Summer, but none of them ultimately survived long on air or in the cultural conversation.

    Pretty Little Liars: Summer School might be the first teen drama slasher show to defy the odds. Created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Lindsay Calhoon Bring, the Max series — which was initially titled Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin, then rebranded for Season 2 — follows high schoolers Imogen (Bailee Madison), Tabby (Chandler Kinney), Faran (Zaria), Mouse (Malia Pyles), and Noa (Maia Reffico) as they’re tormented by a mysterious masked villain known as “A.” 

    Although it takes place in the same universe as ABC Family/Freeform’s 2010 mystery YA drama series of the same name (loosely based on the books by Sara Shepard), Max’s version of Pretty Little Liars is much darker and grittier. Summer School, which premiered May 9, ramps up the scares even more as the “final girls” face a terrifying new villain (dubbed “Bloody Rose”) who may or may not have a connection to A. 

    Not only does the sophomore season raise the stakes, it firmly cements the teen drama as a full-blown slasher. Intense chase scenes, brutal on-screen kills, new love interests who may or may not be trustworthy, ominous reminders that absolutely anyone can die — Summer School takes these tried-and-true slasher movie elements and proves that they can work just as well in the context of a teen drama show. 

    One of the biggest things that sets Pretty Little Liars: Summer School apart from past teen slasher shows is that the characters are actually worth rooting for. They’re flawed like any other teenage protagonists, but it’s easy to understand where they’re coming from. When Imogen lashes out, we can still empathize with her because we’ve directly witnessed all the horrors she’s endured. 

    Some of Noa’s choices in Season 2 are deeply frustrating to watch, but she’s also a traumatized teenager who’s struggling with a lot while her mom is in rehab. The girls are also incredible friends to each other — for starters, the group is nothing but supportive and non-judgemental when Imogen and Tabby reveal what happened to them that fateful night of the party. They even treat Kelly (Mallory Bechtel), who was awful to them in the past, with genuine kindness and empathy in the wake of her sister’s death.

    The same can’t be said about the teens in Prime Video’s I Know What You Did Last Summer, almost all of whom lacked any real redeeming qualities. While the characters in the original 1997 movie (which was based on Lois Duncan’s 1973 novel of the same name) were also pretty awful, it was easy enough to tolerate them for an hour-and-a-half in exchange for all of the flick’s scares and thrills. 

    However, it’s a lot more difficult to keep viewers invested in unlikable characters for the duration of an entire TV show — if we don’t have any reason to root for them in the first place, who cares if they survive or not? The Pretty Little Liars girls aren’t perfect by any means, but they’re a million times more layered and sympathetic than I Know What You Did Last Summer’s Lennon (Madison Iseman), whose entire personality can be summed up as “my mom’s dead and I like to f*ck” (a direct quote). 

    MTV’s Scream, which was adapted for TV from Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven’s hugely popular slasher movie franchise, had plenty of compelling characters — Brooke (Carlson Young) in particular was a standout, having transformed from a vain, ruthless queen bee into one of the most layered characters on the show. But despite a strong cast, gripping central mystery, and clever twists sprinkled throughout, the show struggled to find its footing and build an identity outside of its namesake. 

    MTV ultimately rebooted the series with an entirely new cast and premise for Season 3, a huge blow to its existing fans who were left on a cliffhanger. Max’s Pretty Little Liars, on the other hand, has crafted an identity that feels entirely distinct from its predecessor. While it obviously capitalizes on the name and basic premise, it doesn't rely on nostalgia to justify its existence. Save for a few shared elements like Radley Sanitarium and Dr. Sullivan (Annabeth Gish), it could stand on its own as an original show.

    While there are numerous examples of other recent successful teen horror shows, like Netflix’s Wednesday and Paramount+’s School Spirits, Pretty Little Liars: Summer School is different in that it largely stays grounded in reality instead of leaning into supernatural creatures and otherworldly atmospheres. Sure, ghosts and vampires may be scary, but they’re not nearly as frightening as the very real, serious issues — rape, suicide, murder — the Pretty Little Liars characters are forced to reckon with here. This is horror in the truest sense of the word.

    Ultimately, Pretty Little Liars: Summer School succeeds because it knows exactly what it wants to be. It takes key ingredients of teen shows like angst, love triangles, high school dances, and blends them together with the tension, suspense, and scares that make classic slashers tick. The end result is a gripping teen drama slasher that not only works, but feels unlike anything we’ve seen on TV before. 

    New episodes of Pretty Little Liars: Summer School stream Thursdays on Max. 

    Kelly Martinez is a TV Reporter based in Los Angeles. Her previous work can be found at BuzzFeed and People Magazine, among other outlets. She enjoys reading, spending time with her cat, and explaining the plot of Riverdale to people.

    TOPICS: Pretty Little Liars: Summer School, Freeform, Max, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream, Teen Dramas

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