How Marlene King Made Pretty Little Liars The Most Addictive Show On TV

She’s the woman who brought to life the seven-year-long, twisted tale of four high school friends being terrorized by an anonymous villain, who uses everything from dental surgery to seriously creepy dolls to keep them on their toes. So when I meet Pretty Little Liars showrunner and creator Marlene King in her office on the Warner Bros. lot in Hollywood, I’m anticipating someone quiet and kooky — the caricature of a murder mystery writer.

Instead, King is cheerful, embracing me with a hug and offering a wide smile before apologizing well in advance that she’ll have to leave later on so she and her wife can go watch their 12-year-old son perform in a school play. She’s neither of the typical TV writer stereotypes — not the adorkable one in glasses, nor the snooty Hollywood exec, despite her status as an industry power player. Her show starring Lucy Hale, Shay Mitchell, Ashley Benson, Troian Bellisario, and Sasha Pieterse has earned dozens of awards, transformed the way social media impacts television, earned praise from GLAAD for its LGBT inclusivity, launched dozens of careers for women, and brought Freeform a minimum of two million viewers each episode.

Yet somehow — perhaps because the show occupies that oft-mocked genre of teen drama, or simply because she’s not one to self-promote — in the conversations about the Shonda Rhimes’ and Jenji Kohans and Ava Duvernays of TV and film, we rarely hear much about King, a showrunner who’s solidly in their ranks. The eve of the Pretty Little Liars series finale feels like a good time to right that wrong, to introduce Marlene King to the world and explore how she became one of the most quietly influential women in Hollywood.

Over lunch at the Warner Bros.' fine dining room in June, we start at the beginning: In Winchester, Indiana and Greenville, Ohio, the small towns where King grew up spending many of her afternoons at local movie theaters.

“I was always way too shy to ever be in front of the camera,” says King, who managed to overcome her apprehension enough to make a small cameo in the upcoming PLL finale. “But I had a love affair with film as a teenager. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to be a writer, so writing for the movies seemed like a dream job.”

At Pepperdine University, King studied screenwriting, and soon after graduation she got her first big break co-writing National Lampoon’s Senior Trip, which she admits was a “terrible” addition to the franchise. Next, though, came 1995’s Now and Then, a coming of age story starring Christina Ricci, Demi Moore, and Rosie O’Donnell that was based loosely on King’s own upbringing that became a cult favorite.

But over the next decade, King struggled to find the right follow-up project to kick off her career, co-writing HBO’s If These Walls Could Talk with Moore and a movie called Just My Luck starring Lindsay Lohan that was panned by critics. And then, in 2005, she got a life-changing phone call from her agent: ABC Family was a big fan of Now and Then and thought she might be interested in adapting a book called Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard.

“It was like that book found me, and I found that book,” says King.

Though she consulted the first four installments in Shepard’s series for inspiration (and says Shepard is a supportive fan of the show — the two often meet up to swap “A” theories), the Pretty Little Liars world we’ve come to know on television is King’s own. And what propelled the show from just another soapy teen drama to smash success was the way she crafted the “A” mystery as dark, juicy episodes, each ending with irresistible cliffhangers that became fodder for real-time fan reaction videos and endless Twitter theorizing. In addition to impressive weekly live viewership (a tough accomplishment these days thanks to DVR, Hulu, and the like), the social media engagement led ABC Family (and later Freeform) to greenlight King’s series for seven seasons.

But after five years of Who Dunnit, King began to receive criticism from her viewers — accusations that perhaps the showrunner had run out of ideas after the series revealed that A was (spoiler alert!) Charlotte, Ali’s old camp friend who was actually her long lost half brother. And then the show time-jumped ahead five years to bring us yet another A. The question echoing across the internet was: Had PLL taken things too far?

At the question, King slowly puts down her iced tea and fixes two gray-blue eyes on mine. I immediately feel like I’m in trouble. Is this the moment her sinister, mystery-writer side will show itself? Instead, King laughs. There is no such thing astoo far” in Rosewood.

“This is suspended reality,” King says. “We always say: A has unlimited resources! A has all the money in the world to do whatever A wants to do! And we have fun with that fact, like when we revealed that Charlotte was A, the Liars found her bank accounts and one of the characters says, ‘Well, she's never made a bad financial decision.’ This is Pretty Little Liars, people. Our audience loves to be surprised, and you can’t take everything literally.”

Photo: Courtesy of Freeform.

In addition to its social media legs, another huge part of Pretty Little Liars’ success is the cross cultural and generational reach of its audience. A show that originally centered on a group of high school sophomores incites rabid, Beatles-mania levels of hysteria in viewers that range from teenage girls to 30-something professionals (myself included), middle aged women, and preteen boys like King’s own 12- and 15-year-old sons. The showrunner, who is 55, says this is purposeful, as ABC Family used to mandate that shows be enjoyable by both mothers and daughters.

The range of sexual identities included among the show’s characters, and the show’s surprising feminism are also intentional (though the Liars do have very steamy romantic arcs, each episode passes the Bechdel test with flying colors). King says she’s never felt that her gender nor her sexuality have set her back in Hollywood, which she calls a “bubble” that makes it easy to forget the non-liberal views that exist in other parts of the country. So she made sure that Rosewood felt like a similar bubble, and viewers outside of it would have to catch up.

“Originally, ABC Family was the Christian Broadcast Network, so you would think a murder mystery with gay characters would be controversial,” she says. “But we have a high number of conservative viewers. And in the beginning, several Christian organizations were saying people shouldn't watch because Emily kissed a girl onscreen, but now we have a lot of Christian blogs that love the show and recap it. A lot changed over the course of seven years, and it shows that politics don’t always have to translate to entertainment.”

After lunch, King gives me a tour of what remains of Rosewood on the studio lot. While most of the main sets (like the inside of The Brew or Spencer’s living room) have been torn down since filming wrapped in October, I still nerd out at seeing the front of Rosewood High, the exterior of Spencer’s barn, and the entrance to Radley Sanitarium-turned-Hotel. (Curiously, all of these Rosewood locales reside across from the gazebo that Lorelai and Rory frequent in Gilmore Girls. Hollywood magic is so mind-blowing.)

As we put around in a zebra-printed golf cart that reads “Pretty Little Liars Mar’s Cart” with King’s assistant, Romy — a talkative Black London native who aspires to be a showrunner herself one day — King talks about the impact she most hopes her show will have on the industry.

“I want people to meet a writer or director and say, ‘Oh she grew up on a Marlene King show,’” says King, looking directly at Romy. “We’ve used all the same writers from the beginning. I’ve never fired anybody, and I’ve actually promoted a lot of assistants to script coordinators or staff writers. I don’t care how much experience you have; if you’re not a nice person, I don’t want to work with you.”

"You can’t be afraid to take a risk in casting, especially if we want more people of color and women onscreen."
— Marlene King

King also mentions that she encourages her cast members to give their storyline input. Lucy Hale, for example, begged for her goody-two-shoes character, Aria, to get a “bad side,” which we finally saw this season. But just as important as diverse perspectives from writers, King says, are the people behind the camera. Pretty Little Liars has helped launch the careers of directors like Zetna Fuentes, who’s since become in-demand on several Shondaland shows, and Marta Cunningham, who recently directed her second episode of PLL as well as an episode of Transparent.

Photo: Courtesy of Arianna Davis.
The Liars' look-a-like dolls that "A" created now reside in King's office.

“I do think Hollywood is starting to make strides for women — I’ve seen a few other kindred souls like myself that are promoting from within and going out of their way to hire as many different kinds of women as possible,” King says. “At its core, PLL is about unconditional friendship amongst women. I wanted to create a show that’s as unapologetically strong and powerful onscreen as it is offscreen.”

For all of its accomplishments, though, King’s show has not been without its critics — particularly when the writers used Charlotte’s transgender identity as a plot device to shock readers.

“It was pretty controversial, and people had a lot of opinions, especially because that was around the same time that Caitlyn Jenner came out,” King says. “There was never any intention of saying she’s bad because she’s transgender. But viewers will learn more about who she is in the finale and understand her better, I hope.”

King also acknowledges that Pretty Little Liars could have had more racial diversity, a goal she’s hoping to reach in her latest project, Famous In Love. The scripted series stars Bella Thorne as a college student whose sudden rise to fame results in what King calls a “female Entourage.” But what’s immediately noticeable about Famous is that — in addition to a refreshingly diverse cast — it stars mostly unknowns, aside from Thorne.

“I’ve always said that when it comes to hiring in Hollywood, you have to take a chance on what you think somebody could be, versus what they are already. Look at Pretty Little Liars: Troian was a trained actress, but hadn’t had any big gigs. This was Shay Mitchell’s first acting job. You can’t be afraid to take a risk in casting, especially if we want more people of color and women onscreen.”

The last stop during our day together is King’s office, a PLL oasis overflowing with memorabilia. There’s Ali’s infamous yellow top from the very first episode (though it’s not the original; they had about 30 made, since Ali had to get buried alive in it more than a few times); those disturbing dolls, which have a permanently happy home in their dollhouse (fun fact: It’s King’s from childhood); framed photos of Marlene from episodes she's directed, which are gifts from Mitchell; and the clapperboard from the final episode, which reads: Directed by Marlene King. (For the record, King refuses to choose a favorite Liar — there’s a bit of her in each of them, she says — and her favorite episode is when we learn that Spencer’s then-boyfriend Toby was on the “A team.”)

Photo: Courtesy of Arianna Davis.
King's office at Warner Bros.

Sitting on a cream leather couch beneath a sign that reads “Rosewood,” King shares how she’s spending the first chunk of time off she’s had in a long time, now that PLL is over and Famous In Love is waiting for official word on a season 2. She and her wife, Shari, have been catching up on shows like Big Little Lies, and the family likes to hang out in their pajamas doing puzzles. But it’s hard for King to slow down. She already has an idea in the works about “empowered women with secrets and very big jobs,” and promises to fill us in when the time is right.

But first things first: Saying goodbye to Pretty Little Liars on June 27. King smiles down at her phone, typing in a group chat with all five cast members about where to watch the finale together. “I was just talking to Ashley and Shay about how many endings we’ve had to grieve on this show,” says King, who gifted each of the Liars matching Cartier rings after they wrapped filming to symbolize strength, art, and beauty. She also dismisses any rumors of tension behind the scenes, saying that like any family, they’ve had their creative disagreements, but the only drama has been the onscreen variety.

“In some ways, the girls are like my friends, but they’re also like my daughters, my younger sisters. But I keep saying: The show's over, but you'll dance at my son's Bar Mitzvah, and I'll dance at your weddings. We'll be there for each other.”

Before we part ways, I beg for a tease of Tuesday’s finale — possibly futile since the seven-year history of this show has proven, if anything, that this woman can keep a secret.

“The finale is two hours long,” she says. “There is a wedding. There's a time jump between the episode before and the ending. And I would say that the penultimate episode felt like a finale. A lot gets answered in that, which gave us a breath to tell a story in the finale that feels like an epic two-hour movie.” Her final thought for all of us devoted viewers out there: “I don’t think the fans will be disappointed.”

The finale of Pretty Little Liars airs on Freeform June 27 at 8 PM EST.