‘Pretty Little Liars’: One ‘Ship to Divide Them All

Spaleb

About a month ago, I did an article about fan ‘ships, particularly in regards to “The Vampire Diaries,” in which I talked about how fans latching onto a particular pairing can often adversely affect their general reaction to a show, to the point where it can actually effect the ratings. As evidenced by that show, once one of the CW’s most popular, being relegated to the oft-deadly Friday night “death” slot, where many a show has been put out to pasture until the end of the season, at which point it is unceremoniously dismissed.

I was somewhat shocked by the outpouring of response the article got, both here and in the various places I posted it online, but in retrospect, I’m not sure why it came as a surprise. After all, shows have been allowing fans to dictate their next move for some time now, especially since the internet has given them a louder- and more aggressive- voice.

Indeed, one need not look any further than the terminology itself- terms like “shipping,” “endgame” and “decoupling” didn’t even exist in their current form until recently. No doubt about it, fans have a voice in the process, and they are not afraid to use it, especially if it goes against their wishes.

Of course, not everyone agrees with everyone else, which has led to some interesting showdowns. Arguably the biggest- and most vocal- of them all is the contingent both for and against the latest couple configuration on “Pretty Little Liars”- “Spaleb,” aka the burgeoning relationship between Spencer (Troian Bellisario) and Caleb (Tyler Blackburn).

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Before we get into that, let’s backtrack a little. In the beginning, things were relatively simple. Barring some occasional sidebars, you had Aria (Lucy Hale) and Ezra (Ian Harding); Hanna (Ashley Benson) and Caleb; and Spencer and Toby (Keegan Allen) and all was right in the world. Meanwhile, Emily, ever the player and a bona fide serial dater, played the field a bit more, eventually settling on the admittedly divisive Paige (Lindsey Shaw), who stuck around longer than most, but was never quite considered “endgame” by fans.

Instead, many fans apparently longed for, of all things, “Emison,” aka Emily hooking up with Alison (Sasha Pieterse), with whom she’d had a few hook-ups here or there, but nothing near as serious as that of her relationship with Paige, for example, much less any number of others I could name. But such are the whims of certain fans, who latch on to certain couples and won’t let go for anything.

Then, in a controversial move, “PLL” recently decided to jump forward several years, which in theory, sounded like a good move. After all, these poor actresses, many of whom were well into their twenties- in fact, Bellisario is actually in her early 30’s at this point- had been in high school longer than it took most of us to attend and graduate it. Indeed, I myself achieved both a Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree in the time that has elapsed since the show began! So, who can blame them for wanting to mix things up a bit?

Then, the reality of it all set in. After all, several years is a long time. In that time, all of the girls, save Ali, moved out of Rosewood, started lives for themselves, and, as it turns out, mostly went their separate ways. This, of course, also meant a fair amount of reshuffling of the decks, which meant a host of new couplings, much to some fans’ dismay.

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Enter the following pairings: Aria and the appropriately- and literally- bookish Liam (Roberto Aguire), who works alongside her at a publishing company; and Hanna and Jordan (David Coussins), a hunky, super-rich Aussie. Emily, as ever, remained a lone wolf, not currently involved with anyone- though sparks did fly between her and Sabrina (Lulu Brud) until a clueless Aria threw a wrench into all that.

Then there was Spencer, who had long since parted ways with Toby to essentially become a lobbyist in Washington DC (though don’t dare call her that to her face). Meanwhile, Toby, who remained in Rosewood, continued to be a police officer; while Caleb, who returned to town in the wake of his split with Hanna, buddied up to the former to become a so-called “Brotherhood of the Exes.”

Well, that didn’t last long, as upon Spencer’s re-arrival to Rosewood, sparks flew between her and Caleb, leading to them becoming a couple. Tellingly, Spencer almost immediately went to Hanna to get her blessing before moving forward with anything, and went so far as to offer to back off even after the two hooked up, not wanting to break “Girl Code”- though many would say she already did that by dating a long-term ex of a friend in the first place.

Meanwhile, in true guy form, Caleb only went to Toby for his approval after he’d hooked up with Spencer- so much for the “Bro Code”- much less the “Brotherhood of the Exes.” Granted, mind you, Hanna is engaged to be married, and Toby was well on his way towards it, with new love interest Yvonne (Kara Royster), so it’s not as if either one hadn’t moved on since their mutual break-ups, but, be that as it may, some fans hit the roof about it.

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On a certain level, I get it. After all, we’d all gotten used to the old-school couplings, and it’s a tricky bit of business pulling the rug out from under all of that to longtime fans. But shows need to grow and mature, and “PLL” has nothing if not completely reinvented itself, between moving on to a new tormentor (or tormentors, as the case likely is), to it brow-beating us over the head with how much the girls have “grown,” by showing them endlessly swilling booze and having sex.

It’s no wonder the network changed its name from ABC Family to something else! (Not sure about the whole “Free Form” rebranding yet, but we’ll see how it goes.) Whatever the case, some fans are not happy, and it’s enough to make you wonder about the future of the show itself.

Indeed, the ratings overall are down the second half of the season, with some fans having abandoned it after the big “A.” reveal, which did NOT go down well with some; while others have seemingly abandoned it after the mid-season premiere, clearly none too happy with what the show has morphed into- or, quite possibly, the whole reshuffling of the couples deck.

As just a comparison, ratings in the first half of the season topped out at just over two million, occasionally dipping below that from time to time, before topping out at over three million for the big “A.” reveal. But while the mid-season premiere netted over two million as well, the ratings have steadfastly dipped below that into the upper-and even lower- side of one million since.

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At this rate, the show might well dip below one million by the end of the season, which isn’t good news for those of us fans who have stuck with it. Though most have posited the show was going to end after next season anyway, this dip in viewership might well be the final nail in the coffin of any further seasons, much less the possibility of a theatrical release to finish it all off, as some were hoping for.

However, the big question is: did people stop watching because they simply solved the main mystery- shades of “Twin Peaks” back in the day after they did the same thing- or because of the major changes brought about by pairing off our main cast with new characters? Or in the case of “Spaleb,” unexpectedly pairing off two main characters with one another in a way that many fans saw as a “betrayal”?

What’s more, should shows allow fans to dictate what direction a show should go in, in terms of who is paired with who? “The Vampire Diaries” is certainly paying the price for going against many fans’ wishes- and in their case, they actually did pair them off with long-standing characters, albeit nearly across the board, and in ways that fans weren’t too keen on. (Granted, at least some of the problem there might have had to do with the loss of leading lady Nina Dobrev- though by no means all.)

Insofar as “PLL” goes, I’ve heard mixed reactions to Aria, Hanna and Ali’s respective new beaus, but nowhere near the rancor reserved for that of Spencer being paired off with Caleb. Many fans are not at all happy with it, while others- like myself- are firmly onboard with it.

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I mean, I get the upset that those who were pulling for Hanna and Caleb to end up together feel, but to me, Spencer and Caleb not only generate more heat than Haleb ever did, they’re just plain a better match, as two people of better-than-average intelligence.

Think about it- if these characters were older and a guy like Caleb ended up with a girl like Hanna, many would have rightly termed Hanna a bit of a “trophy wife.” Good looks, to be sure- on both ends- but let’s face it, Hanna isn’t hacking into anything major anytime soon. (Indeed, just recently, Hanna needed an assist from Caleb to crack a password code in her own mother’s office- which, naturally turned out to be related to Hanna herself.)

Don’t get me wrong- not saying she’s an idiot at all. Hanna has proven herself to be quite resourceful on more than a few occasions, to be sure, and is nothing if not quick with a snarky quip. But is she a genius on the level of a Spencer or Caleb? Um, no. Not even close.

So, while I get the notion of being faithful to long-standing characters being together, there is such a thing as people just plain being a better match, and I do think Spaleb is one. Just my opinion, of course, and naturally, more than a few people out there would disagree, but such is the problem of a long-running show taking chances. Sometimes they pay off, sometimes…not so much.

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Can “Pretty Little Liars” rebound from all these changes? That remains to be seen. Will the show-runners cave to fan demand and get Hanna and Caleb back together? Ditto. Should they? Debatable. For a show to live and thrive, they almost have to make changes, and that sometimes includes mixing things up and even prolonging the inevitable.

After all, think about it. On all the shows you can think of in which major characters were paired off, how many actually improved after? Or did better in the ratings? That decline in ratings after something like that is the whole reason a lot of shows prolong the inevitable- just look at “The X-Files,” “Bones,” “Castle” and plenty more where that came from.

Granted, some of these shows go the opposite route and end up waiting a little too long, but there’s something to be said in taking risks. Witness, for instance, “Lost.” Yes, it also risked losing viewers by making some unexpected changes, both in terms of who was coupled off with who- remember when they paired off Sawyer with Juliet instead of him with Kate, like a lot of people wanted them to? – as well as doing the whole “time jump” thing, but in many ways, the risk paid off, even while the show lost a few viewers, no pun intended.

So, in other words, for a show to live, thrive and survive, risks are sometimes well-worth taking…at least until they backfire. It remains to be seen whether “Pretty Little Liars” will pay the price for such radical changes, but I certainly don’t blame them for trying something new in the process. Why not mix things up a little, keep people on their toes a bit? Better that than letting things go stale.

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What do you think? Are you pro-Spaleb, or Haleb all the way? What about the other characters? Are you all for an Ezaria endgame? Or Spoby? Or even Emison? There are no wrong answers, so feel free to voice your opinions one way or another. Who knows? The show-runners might actually listen- wouldn’t be the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last. Let me know what you think down below, and be sure and read my weekly columns on both “PLL” and “The Vampire Diaries”!