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Pretty Little Liars: Summer School's Bloody New Direction Pays Off

The followup to Max's Original Sin packs in more scares, more stakes, and more relationship drama.
  • Bailee Madison in Pretty Little Liars: Summer School (Photo: Max)
    Bailee Madison in Pretty Little Liars: Summer School (Photo: Max)

    Millwood’s final girls may have survived being chased by a masked serial killer (so far), but they’re totally unprepared to face their biggest nightmare yet: summer school. Pretty Little Liars: Summer School, which premieres May 9 on Max, picks up directly after the events of the previous season, which was titled Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin. Created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Lindsay Calhoon Bring, the teen drama’s latest installment follows Imogen (Bailee Madison), Tabby (Chandler Kinney), Faran (Zaria), Mouse (Malia Pyles), and Noa (Maia Reficco) as they tackle summer school, summer jobs, and summer flings, all while being terrorized by a terrifying new villain who may or may not be linked to “A.”

    Although the series takes place in the same universe as the original Pretty Little Liars — which was loosely based on the mystery book series by Sara Shepard and aired on ABC Family/Freeform from 2010 to 2017 — it feels closer to MTV’s Scream in genre and tone. While Original Sin was also a blend of teen drama and horror, the sophomore season takes this to new heights and commits to being a full-on slasher drama. Pretty Little Liars: Summer School ramps things up with bigger scares and higher stakes, and it generally pays off.

    Summer School begins after last season’s cliffhanger, which saw A (revealed as Principal Clanton, who turned out to really be Archie Waters), on the loose and out for revenge, killing Chip (Carson Rowland). This season’s main villain is known as “Bloody Rose,” and she’s even scarier than Archie — she wields a signature bloody knife, and she’s not afraid to use it. There’s a high body count and the violence largely takes place on screen. 

    The events of "Chapter Thirteen: Sweet Sixteen” serve as a prime example of how much more intense Season 2 is. The episode centers on the friends throwing a surprise Sweet 16 birthday party for Mouse, and to say things don’t exactly go according to plan would be a massive understatement. Although Season 1 put the girls in danger, including nail-biting moments like A chasing after Noa and Steve (Alexander Chaplin) stalking Mouse, “Sweet Sixteen” is the first time it really feels plausible that literally anyone could die. As Imogen points out, the fact that they’re all “final girls” also means that any one of them could be next on the chopping block. 

    Beyond the main plot of Bloody Rose terrorizing the core group, this season focuses on Kelly (Mallory Bechtel) and her mother (Jennifer Ferrin) finding a new home in the inviting, but strange Our Mother of Holy Grace Church. While it initially seems like Kelly is only going along with this to please her mom, it soon becomes clear that she’s wrapped up in something deep and potentially dangerous. Things only get more complicated when Faran’s boyfriend Henry (Ben Cook) joins the church’s intense youth group, straining their relationship. Although the storyline is intriguing and deeply unsettling, it also feels a little too reminiscent of Riverdale’s (which Aguirre-Sacasa also created) infamous farm cult plot at times.

    Despite the stakes they’re dealing with, the characters still feel like actual teenagers. The summer school setting is entertaining and adds a hearty dose of classic teen drama vibes to the mix, a welcome change from the previous season. While Original Sin handled serious issues like grooming and sexual assault much better than the OG Pretty Little Liars (cough cough, Aria and Ezra), it largely lacked the campy vibes and humor that made the 2010 series so addictive and easy to digest. Summer School is still plenty dark, but it also feels much more, well, fun. Ridiculous lines like “FOMO is real and it is a form of psychological torture” and “calm down, Nicole Kidman,” provide much needed levity in between all the scares.

    Season 2 also dials up the relationship drama. In addition to Henry, Mouse’s boyfriend Ash (Jordan Gonzalez), and Noa’s boyfriend Shawn (Alex Aiono) returning, the show shakes things up with the addition of three new characters. There’s Johnny (Antonio Cipriano), who works at the ice cream shop with Imogen and is a bit of a player; Christian (Noah Alexander Gerry), Tabby’s new co-worker who shares her love of horror movies; and Jen (Ava Capri), a mysterious friend from Noa’s past in juvie. For better or worse, ships were always a huge part of the OG Pretty Little Liars fandom, so it makes sense that Summer School would try to replicate that, even if the love interests here aren’t quite as fleshed out.

    Noa and Jen’s dynamic stands out as the most interesting and full of potential. While Season 1 had LGBTQ+ representation with Ash (who’s trans), Mouse (who’s implied to be queer), and Mouse’s mothers, Noa and Jen’s relationship is the first same-gender pairing among the teens — this feels long overdue, considering how much lesbian and bisexual rep the original Pretty Little Liars had. Although it’s great to see Noa’s sexuality being explored (especially since Maia Reffico is bisexual herself), the writing often resorts to dated stereotypes and played-out tropes, which is disappointing coming from such a progressive show. Specifically, the way the love triangle between Noa, Shawn, and Jen is executed leaves a lot to be desired.

    In terms of acting, all of the cast brings their A game, but Bailee Madison’s performance especially stands out. Out of all the girls, Imogen has arguably been through the most — her mother died, she was raped by Chip and became pregnant with his baby, and then she made the difficult decision to place her daughter for adoption. Given all this, it’s more than understandable that she’s hit her breaking point. Madison does an incredible job of portraying Imogen as she slowly unravels and lashes out at everyone around her. In particular, her performance in "Chapter Fifteen: Friday the 13th" is absolutely chilling.

    Overall, Pretty Little Liars: Summer School is an entertaining, intense ride that simultaneously feels like both a juicy teen drama and a true slasher. The season isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty dang fun and makes for a scary good time. In an age when solid teen dramas are increasingly few and far in between, what more can you ask for?

    Pretty Little Liars: Summer School premieres May 9 on Max with two episodes, with all remaining episodes released weekly through June. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    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, Max, Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin, Pretty Little Liars: Summer School, Bailee Madison, Chandler Kinney, Lindsay Calhoon Bring, Maia Reficco, Malia Pyles, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Zaria