"Gossip Girl" goes "Twin Peaks Lite" in ABC Family's mildly sinister romp "Pretty Little Liars," which premieres Tuesday. If the title doesn't let you know what you're in for, the tagline — "Never trust a pretty girl with an ugly secret" — will. Four sweet-16s reunite a year after their conniving queen bee Alison (Sasha Pieterse) goes missing during one dark and stormy drink 'n' sleepover. Aria ("Privileged's" Lucy Hale), whose family apparently hightailed it to Iceland moments after Alison's disappearance, has returned to picture-perfect Rosewood just in time for the anniversary. Beautiful and, you know, just a tiny bit bummed, Aria ducks into a bar for a burger and finds solace in the arms of a stranger — who a few days later turns out to be her new high school English teacher!
But by then, teacher-code-violating love is the least of her worries. Having hooked up with her former BFFs, she realizes much has changed — the once very slightly plump Hanna (Ashley Benson) has become the shoplifting, couture-wearing new It Girl — but much has not. Spencer (Troian Bellisario) is still an overlooked and envious little sister, Emily (Shay Mitchell) remains a straight-A jock goddess, and they all have at least one carefully guarded secret.
Which, if they have forgotten, a series of notes and texts signed "A" is happy to remind them.
Is "A" Alison and does that mean she's back? If so, where's she been? And what's she up to?
Whatever answers are offered at the end of the pilot come with their own set of questions that, rather hilariously, include a girl named Jenna (Tammin Sursok) who is, apparently, blind and a detective who isn't buying the girls' version of events.
"Pretty Little Liars" is one of those shows that manages to mildly, and perhaps unintentionally, spoof its genre while fully participating in it, and that's not a bad thing at all. Although it's difficult to imagine the show going "Gossip Girl" viral, its idyllic streets and Craftsman homes both signify small acts of hidden darkness and offer decorating tips, creating enough PG tension to make it a beach read of a show, perfect for tweens and young teens and whatever adults are tired enough or relaxed enough to join them.
There also appears to be a decided lack of vampires, and these days that's got to count for something.
The girls are all 16-going-on-26, but they're lovely and lively even if the secrets, or what they appear to be, are not terribly interesting. "The Craft" it ain't. But with Chad Lowe as Aria's father and Laura Leighton (the infamous Sydney of "Melrose Place") as Hanna's mom, there's a fairly good chance the liars of the title are not just referring to teenagers, and that's something to look forward to.