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‘Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin’ Review: HBO Max Series Goes Full ‘Scream’ to Delightfully Chilling Effect

The new show embraces the slasher genre while avoiding the campier aspects of the original series

At this point, it’s kind of difficult to say anything new or different about the concept of reboots, reimaginings, and revivals — especially when the particular intellectual property being rebooted, reimagined, or revived hasn’t been off the air that long. HBO Max’s “Gossip Girl” is a revival, continuing the legacy established by the original series that said farewell less than a decade ago, and now, in the case of “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin” (also a “Max Original,” of which five episodes were provided for this review), we’re talking about a series based on something that premiered 12 years ago… and only just ended five years ago.

It’s difficult to imagine that audiences have even really even been given a chance to miss the original show for long enough before “Riverdale” creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Lindsay Calhoon Bring decided to bring it back in this “new” form. (“New,” because the references in “Original Sin” are more millennial than even the references on the original series were.)

Still, there’s no denying the nostalgia that comes with hearing the opening credits to “Original Sin,” a remix of the original ABC Family series’ theme (“Secret” by The Pierces). It at least helps that this “Pretty Little Liars” story follows new characters, shifting from the fictional Pennsylvania suburb of Rosewood to the fictional small Pennsylvania milling town of Millwood.

Aguirre-Sacasa is, of course, known for The CW’s “Riverdale,” a dark, moody and mysterious, sexy take on the saccharine world of Archie Comics, and Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”… a dark, moody and mysterious, sexy take on the saccharine world of Sabrina the Teenage Witch (an offshoot of Archie Comics). Aguirre-Sacasa flipped the script on these properties in the Archie Comics world first before committing them to the small screen, but this is his first major foray out of that realm as a show creator.

The thing about “Pretty Little Liars,” however, is that it was already dark, moody and mysterious, and sexy in its original iteration — or at least as much as it could be on ABC Family. Much like “Riverdale,” it was also campy and, for lack of a better term, a wild ride, with characters getting criminal charges for simply holding a shovel, going into blind fugue states, and ending up on murder trains with Adam Lambert. Some could even say that “Pretty Little Liars” walked so that “Riverdale” could run right off those murder train rails. So it makes sense that Aguirre-Sacasa would be the one given the reins to this property, alongside Calhoon Bring (a writer on “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”).

Where the original series saved murders for big moments in premieres and finales, “Original Sin” regularly goes for a body count. And where the original had a less slasher-focused “I Know What You Did Last Summer” premise to it, “Original Sin” is far more “Scream,” both in terms of Millwood feeling very much like Woodsboro and with the sins of the mother(s) coming back to traumatize the daughter(s). Funnily enough, “Original Sin” — despite being a slasher series — is arguably more grounded than the original series. The “original sin” of the mothers (played by a murderer’s row of talent in Carly Pope, Sharon Leal, Lea Salonga, Elena Goode, and Zakiya Young) haunts both them and their daughters, with the latter all capturing the victimhood of a proper Final Girl. In fact, one of the most impressive things in the series premiere is the way in which “Original Sin” plays each girl’s story as though they are the stars of their own horror movies, not even necessarily the same one. It also makes clear something that differentiates them from both the girls their mothers were and the girls the original series Liars were: These girls are not mean girls.

The original “Pretty Little Liars” followed a quartet of teen girls who suffered punishment from A as the result of their enabling of the meanest teen girl previously alive, Alison DiLaurentis. “Pretty Little Liars” quickly made the point that,  even if you weren’t the actual villain or perpetrator of injustices, how you reacted to those things would continue to define you — and would fuel A. While the Liars of the original series weren’t necessarily “mean girls,” the series’ flashbacks revealed how they sat idly by as their Queen Bee imposed her will on helpless victims. In fact, oftentimes, despite being Alison’s “friends,” they were her helpless victims. (The show also wasn’t afraid to make them unlikable in their quest to find and take down A.)

“Original Sin’s” quintet — outcast Imogen (Bailee Madison), film nerd Tabby (Chandler Kinney), ballet star Faran (Zaria), nerdy Mouse (Malia Pyles), and disgraced jock Noa (Maia Reficco) — aren’t all squeaky clean, but they are definitely not the girls their mothers were. But that doesn’t matter when it comes to revenge. Just ask Sidney Prescott. So while there’s a sense of “well, they kind of had it coming” in the original series, the tension and stress of “Original Sin” stems from the fact that these new liars are quite innocent and in no way culpable for their parents’ behavior both then and now. (It also makes for a lot of well-earned stress and tension when six-month-pregnant Imogen is the one in the physical crosshairs of A) And they’re definitely not idle enablers of this show’s Queen Bee, the appropriately named Karen (Mallory Bechtel).

But the most necessary comparison to make when it comes to “Original Sin” and whether or not it’s a successful attempt at what it’s trying to do is to Amazon Prime Video’s failed TV reboot of “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Of the recent series that have paid heavy homage to the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, specifically, “Original Sin” is multiple steps above what was being done on “I Know What You Did Last Summer” (although HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant” may still be the most successful). It’s even more glaring as “Original Sin” immediately takes the doubles aspect that “I Know What You Did Last Summer” used as its central focus — with one actress playing twins and playing with the mistaken identity of it all — and does a far better job with it right out the gate with twin characters Karen and Kelly. Because “Original Sin’s” greatest strength is that it has a perspective when it comes to its horror homages — something the original series also had with it came to its own homages to Hitchcock and, more pointedly, noir — which Amazon’s “I Know What You Did Last Summer” severely lacked. It also seemingly has the budget to visually pull all of this off and have a genre-appropriate style.

That is “Original Sin’s” greatest strength, outside of the casting and characterization: It wears its horror roots on its sleeve. From having a law firm straight up called “Strode, Prescott, Ripley & Associates” to a funnily appropriate nod to “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Original Sin” is another entry into the meta-horror genre, again harkening back to “Scream.” But in a post-“Scream” world — whether you want to talk the original or the recent entry, which is technically “Scream 5” — it can be hard to nail that tonal balance.

Tabby, the horror film buff of the Liars, has the potential to be the show’s best character but also its absolute worst for this very reason. While it’s clear Kinney can properly deliver the referential lines, ”Original Sin” could stand to tone Tabby down just a notch on that front. Because It’s easy to get tonal whiplash when in one scene, she’s making the type of smart decision no character from the original series ever would’ve made, and the next, she can’t help but relate to what’s supposed to be a grounded emotional moment with a painfully crammed in horror movie reference.

Most importantly, “Original Sin” follows up on an important fact that everyone who watched “Pretty Little Liars” learned the hard way: Do not trust any straight adult man. In fact, there’s a character in “Original Sin” who could easily be considered the show’s pointed commentary on “Pretty Little Liars” character Ezra Fitz, the love interest and English teacher of one of the Liars.

“Pretty Little Liars” took place in a world where teenagers and their omniscient cyberbullies alike were obsessed with old Hollywood (especially film noir) and “The Great Gatsby,” a fact that often set the visual language and tone of the series. With “Original Sin,” that visual language and tone is instead set by horror movies, especially of the slasher variety. And while one could argue that “Original Sin” is executed in a way that roughs up the edges of the original series — much like with “Gossip Girl,” as it seems that HBO Max wants to replicate “Euphoria” without the originality — that would ignore the fact that the edges on “Pretty Little Liars” were already pretty rough.

“Original Sin” feels like a natural progression. (Just look back at the “Pretty Little Liars’” failed supernatural-horror spinoff “Ravenswood,” which went too far into the supernatural of it all to be taken seriously.) Sure, there are f-bombs (and beyond) now, as well as male butts galore (which can feel a bit try-hard) but as this version of “Pretty Little Liars” isn’t making a timely commentary on cyberbullying the way the original did with its version of A (the villain of the piece), it can just get right down to the goods. In this case, “the goods” involves embracing the slasher genre with the central villain’s 20-plus-year vendetta.

“Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin” premieres on HBO Max on July 28 with three episodes, followed by one new episode weekly.

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