Destroying the school gym – or at least trying to – is quite a motif when it comes to the darkest teen films. Kristy Swanson burns down the school gym to wipe out vampires in the OG version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. IN Heather, Christian Slater tries to blow it up in the middle of a pep rally. The gym is also where the titular Carrie takes telekinetic revenge on the classmates who humiliated her, killing them all in a massive fire. So while the idea of a school gym as a hotbed of violence isn’t new, it says a lot about the type of show Pretty Little Liars: Original Synd will be.
Original sin – which streams in the US on HBO Max – ultimately has more in common with teen slasher flicks than the Lucy Hale-led original Pretty Little Liars, about a group of friends that disintegrates when Queen Bee disappears. That version from ABC Family (now called Freeform) wrapped just five years ago, so it’s possible you can still hear the inappropriately chirpy theme song — “Got a secret, can you keep it?” – playing in your head. The new Pretty Little Liars – from Riverdale‘s Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Lindsay Calhoon Bring of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – opens with a slowed-down, discordant remix of the track to announce its creepier identity.
This series is about five high school girls – pregnant Imogen (Bailee Madison), film nerd Tabby (Chandler Kinney), rebellious Noa (Maia Reficco), quiet Mouse (Malia Pyles) and prima ballerina Faran (Zaria) – who unite to take down Karen (Mallory Bechtel), a bully with all the baggage the specific first name implies. Unbeknownst to all of them, their own mothers – who grew up in the same small town – are ambiguously linked to a teenage suicide that took place when they were their daughters’ age. Across the season’s early episodes, these two timelines are knitted together by the arrival of a masked stranger bent on revenge.
In the three-hour block that comprises the unconventional “series premiere” of the show, several scenes take place in the oddly under-chaperoned holding pen known as detention. IN Original sin, as it was at my own high school, detention is a place for the kids who get into trouble complaining and conspiring. By removing most of the adults from the picture – apart from a chuckling headmaster and a terrifying ballet mistress – the implication is that it is the students themselves who make high school a hellscape for each other.
In fact, the show takes place almost entirely in the parts of the school grounds where teachers are scarce: the dirty girls’ restrooms, the teeming cafeteria, the hallways of Spirit Week streamers. Improbably, this run-down suburban high school even has a ballet studio. Really, what’s more menacing than tutus and mirrors?
The series saves its most gruesome scenes of student-on-student violence for the gym—a cavernous space apparently designed to minimize oversight. The bleachers. The barriers. The shadowy corners where the wrestling mats were crumpled up. It’s a wonder any of us survived. Any girl can tell you that the school gym is the site of countless atrocities. The humiliation of a room full of teenagers in various stages of puberty being forced to change clothes in the same room. The fear of being the last one standing when the teams are picked. Cheerleaders on display to be judged by fellow students at pep rally. And that’s just school-authorized torture!
But nothing brings out the danger in a high school gym like seeing it transformed into a ballroom with balloons and disco lights. Think spring formal Jennifer’s bodyor Prom night with Jamie Lee Curtis. IN PLL reboot, a dance is where Karen plans to dip Imogen in pig’s blood, inspired by the bullies in Carrie. She is still crawling around in the rafters when someone pressures her to an untimely death, which is eventually mistaken for another suicide.
It’s always horrible to see a child die on TV. Original sin‘s deliberately dusty sheen has the humane effect of emphasizing its cartoonishness. This did not happen; these terrible things are not real. Except that the gymnasium where it all goes down will be eerily familiar to almost everyone watching. That includes everyone from the kid who was picked first to the girl who tested the limits of how often she could use period pain as an excuse not to participate (yes, that’s me). If high school itself were a TV villain, the gym would be its black, unbridled heart.
“Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin” is streaming on HBO Max now