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Pretty Little Liars’ “Psychotic” Finale: An Ode to Hitchcock?

March 28th, 2012 by Romy Oltuski

Last week’s Pretty Little Liars spring finale was the most virally talked about episode ever. But here’s something that might have gotten lost amongst the chatter: It was also a clear homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

The moment the four girls step into the Lost Woods Resort and encounter its motel manager Harold immersed in a creepy taxidermy zoo, the tribute is apparent. Remember the 1960s classic? The secluded inn is a replica of Hitchcock’s Bates Motel and Harold is a stand-in for his protagonist, Norman Bates.

The episode continues with a play-by-play of Psycho’s famed shower scene, which even begins with the same showerhead close-up that opens Hitchcock’s version, while a shadow, presumably A’s, lurks beyond the curtain. And it ends with an exposed, detained Mona—now the third actor on the evening’s bill as Norman Bates—voiced over by her multiple personalities.

It’s only appropriate for the show to give a meta thanks to its Hitchcockian-inspired suspense. After all, perhaps the biggest MacGuffin currently on television is PLL’s mysterious A. Problem is, most of PLL’s viewers have never heard the name Alfred Hitchcock, much less seen Psycho—which is why the Hitchcockian presence in this episode contributes to the case that the show is actually written for a much older and, dare I say, sophisticated crowd.

With allusions sprinkled atop some pretty decent writing and surprisingly un-dramatic treatment of dramatic situations, PLL targets viewers years above its target age range. Meaning even if you spent your sixteenth birthday in bellbottoms, you might find yourself captivated by PLL’s Sesame Street writing—marketed to the youth; written for the elders.

Let me explain: Sesame Street is a kids’ show, no doubt. But it bred more than a few adult fans too. Its creators anticipated that one of the biggest challenges to its success would be a reluctance on the part of parents to sit down with their kids and watch a show about stuffed animals. So they armed their scripts with a preemptive solution: Make it funny.

And it worked. Adults loved the subtle cleverness and puns worked into the plots about spelling and sharing. Malcolm Gladwell talks a lot about this in the book you’ve invariably either read or heard cited at dinner parties, The Tipping Point. The nod to Beckett in the skit “Waiting for Elmo” is just one moment he points out that’s exemplary of the kind of stuff kids would never get but parents ate up.

PLL follows in true Sesame Street fashion. Whether to gratify older, seasoned consumers of high(er) art or simply to sneak in the producers’ cultural darlings, the show has, on more than one occasion, reached out to the former.

This episode wasn’t the first to feature a heavily Hitchcock-influenced plot. Last season’s finale, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” takes a Hemingway novel as its namesake. But after Ian is thrown off a bell tower to his death, it’s more evocative of another one of Hitchcock’s biggest hits, “Vertigo.” (The parallel would really be complete were we to find Ian alive next season.)

But all this doesn’t happen at the expense of entertaining its more obvious crowd. PLL’s plots are “sticky”—another quality Gladwell ascribes to “Sesame Street”—even to those who don’t quite get everything that’s going on between the lines. How else could this episode have broken the record as the most Tweeted episodes in TV history. (There were 32,000 of ‘em during last week’s episode—get this—per minute.)

PLL is set to return for its next season on June 5. We still don’t know who A is, and, given the producers’ adoration of suspense, probably won’t for some while. But maybe this time around it’ll have a more mature audience playing guess the MacGuffin.

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