This past week Pretty Little Liars aired a black and white episode (“Shadow Play” 4×19), a homage to film noir, that I thought was equal parts amusing and frustrating. While the episode looked beautiful and thematically worked, I was slightly annoyed by the break in the season’s new found momentum. And I think that highlights a common issue with gimmick episodes, moving the story along needs to be of equal importance as the creation of the new world or new story structure that is being presented.
Gimmick episodes can be a fun break or departure from a television show’s existing world or structure. Hell, television may be one of the only storytelling formats that allows for such a diversion, but the fact remains that television series are meant to tell a story and its a bit of a disservice to fans to not follow through – even if there happens to be singing and dancing.
I mean that’s probably why these kind of episodes got shouldered with the term ‘gimmick’ in the first place. But not all of them are all pizazz and no substance. Just look at Dan Harmon’s Community or the works of Joss Whedon for further proof. From claymation to puppets to musicals to silence, these episodes were effectively used to shed new light on characters or to push a narrative along by eliminating obstacles or inhibitions.
And that’s not to say that Pretty Little Liars failed in those aspects, I just wish this episode aired at a different point in the season, because the last two episodes were finally hitting its rapid-fire WTF pacing that makes the show so much fun, and this one slowed things down considerably, albeit understandably since we were supposed to be inside of Spencer’s sleep deprived and Adderall fueled brain.
Interestingly enough it was the ABC Family who approached the showrunners with the idea to have Pretty Little Liars embrace it’s noir roots and go full on black-and-white. Typically that kind of request would be a hallmark sign for a gimmick episode – something shiny and new for the network to promote during sweeps months, similar to stunt casting. But I’ve got to give the showrunners credit for taking the opportunity to make like the classiest drug haze dream episode ever.
Although there was an ‘ah-ha’ mystery solving moment at the end of the episode, along with a present day reveal to the rest of the Liars that Aria and Ezra were back together, I thought the episode was actually most effective when it was focusing on the Emily and Paige relationship in the 1940s.
Despite the fact that the episode was initially told from Spencer’s point of view, “Shadow Play” really excelled when it switched perspectives to demonstrate that the fears and trepidations expressed by Emily and Paige are still common today. They might be out to their family and friends and live in a pretty protective and supportive circle, but they still have to, unfairly might I add, worry about how society as a whole views them and their relationship and for the show’s writers to make that one of the takeaways, well that’s a pretty good way for a gimmick episode to mean more.