Destroying the school gym – or at least attempting to – is something of a motif when it comes to the darkest teen movies. Kristy Swanson burns down her school’s gym to wipe out vampires in the OG version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In Heathers, 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 that 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 does say a lot about the kind of show Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin wants to be.
Original Sin – which is streaming in the US on HBO Max – ultimately has more in common with teen slasher flicks than it does the original Lucy Hale-led Pretty Little Liars, about a friend group that disintegrates when its Queen Bee goes missing. That version from ABC Family (now called Freeform) only wrapped 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 more sinister identity.
This series centres on five high school girls – pregnant Imogen (Bailee Madison), film geek 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 that particular first name implies. Unbeknownst to them all, their own mothers – who grew up in the same small town – are ambiguously bonded by a teen suicide that took place when they were their daughters’ age. Across the season’s early episodes, those two timelines get knitted together by the arrival of a masked stranger set on revenge.
In the three-hour block that comprises the unconventional “series premiere” of the show, multiple scenes take place in that curiously under-chaperoned holding pen known as detention. In Original Sin, as it was in my own high school, detention is a place for the kids who get in trouble to complain and conspire. By removing most of the adults from the picture – save for a bumbling principal and a terrifying ballet mistress – the implication is that it’s the students themselves who make high school a hellscape for each other.
In fact, the show is set almost entirely in the parts of the school grounds where teachers are scarce: the grimy girls’ toilets, the teeming cafeteria, the hallways festooned with Spirit Week streamers. Improbably, this rundown suburban high school even has a ballet studio. Truly, 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 void seemingly designed to minimise supervision. The bleachers. The rafters. The shadowy corners where the wrestling mats got curled up. It’s a wonder any of us survived. Any girl can tell you that the school gym is the site of untold horrors. The humiliation of a roomful of teens in different phases 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 rallies. And that’s just the school-authorised torture!
But nothing draws out the peril of a high school gym like seeing it transformed into a dance hall with balloons and disco lights. Think the spring formal in Jennifer’s Body, or Prom Night with Jamie Lee Curtis. In the PLL reboot, a dance is where Karen plans to douse Imogen in pig’s blood, inspired by the bullies in Carrie. She’s still crawling around up in the rafters when someone pushes her to a premature death, which eventually gets mistaken for another suicide.
It’s always terrible to watch a kid die on TV. Original Sin’s deliberately dusty sheen has the humane effect of emphasising its cartoonishness. This didn’t happen; these awful things aren’t real. Except that the gymnasium where it all goes down will be uncannily familiar to almost everyone who watches. That includes everyone from the kid who was picked first to the girl who tested the limits of how often she could use period cramps as an excuse for nonparticipation (yes, it’s me). If high school itself was a TV villain, the gym would be its black, unbridled heart.
‘Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin’ is streaming on HBO Max now