The Curious Timeline of Pretty Little Liars: 6 Theories to Explain the Show's Bizarre Slowness

By Nick Campbell

Aug 19, 2014

Last year, as Pretty Little Liars closed out the first half of its fourth season, the spookular folks of Rosewood's sister city, Ravenswood, sent around flyers and put up posters advertising a celebration that required attendees to wear “period costumes” (thus creating a premise for the Ravenswood-launching Halloween episode). The camera swooped down to reveal the when-and-where details of the event, but the only info contained on the posted bill was “8 in the evening.” No date—just 8ish on you-know-which-day. It was one of those quirks that could probably be chalked up to Ravenswood magic or the residents' hive-mind collective creepiness (does everyone own a period costume they can don at the drop of a top hat?), but I remember watching and thinking, “Ugh. Why can’t they just include a date?”

To add to the discombobulation, Ezria recently recalled the trajectory of their relationship—as has everyone who's been thinking about used-to-be-dead Alison—and in the process confirmed that it’s been two years in PLL time since Ezra walked his high-school-aged mark back to a bar bathroom and started the greatest love affair the world has ever known. But it’s starting to become more apparent lately that we don’t exactly know when we are. It’s been a good long while since we’ve seen the Liars out of school, since the show has celebrated a real-world holiday, or even since the production designers have offered a rough estimate via constellations in the night sky of where the show is in time. The last specific date we have for the Liars came in the 2012 Halloween episode, “This is a Dark Ride,”—October of their senior year. And in June (of our reality timeline), series creator Marlene King insisted during a Reddit AMA that it’s still fall in Rosewood during the Liars' senior year, which started in Season 3. Thus, since Adam Lambert showed up to awkwardly hit on Aria’s Daisy Buchanan, we’ve tuned in for almost two full seasons that only span a month or so, total, in Rosewood time.

Spencer’s pill addiction, the rise and fall of Ravenswood, the break-up and make-up of Haleb, Ezra being revealed as a surveilling creepster, Ella’s entire doomed adventure with eventual-pedo Zack, Ezra getting shot by Shana, Aria’s poisoning, Ezra healing from that gunshot wound, Spencer finding out that Toby was a hoodie, and all the twists and turns of Paily—all of it supposedly took place before the first Pennsylvania snow.

How can we explain all these events happening in such a small window? Let me offer some theories:

1. Anxiety Stretches Time

What we may perceive as the passage of time is really just an illusion. Just like when you’re scared and it feels like seconds tick by more slowly, these anxiety-riddled young women are in a constant state of fear, living in a world where time seeps forward like molasses. You may think you see them going to bed and waking up the next morning, but those are really just 20-minute stress-naps after the body has shut down due to fight-or-flight fatigue.

Explains: The slow passage of perceived time.

Does Not Explain: Ezra’s Wolverine-like healing ability.

2. Rosewood Is Under the Dome

Chester’s Mill has a speed problem that's even worse than Rosewood's; the small New England municipality has been home to an ax murderer, two water shortages, and multiple manhunts, all within just over two weeks! So maybe whatever is speeding up the crazy in Maine is also letting A have his/her way with the Liars in Rosewood. There hasn’t been a plague yet and there’s no political power struggle over who’s in charge of the greater Rosewood-Ravenswood metropolitan area, but give it time. We’ll figure out who that Dome Egg person is yet.

Explains: The speed at which highly plotted events occur consecutively, why there’s been no snow so far this season.

Does Not Explain: The Liars’ warp speed travel to other cities.

3. Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox

It basically says that between any two points there are an infinite number of subpoints. So, say you want to walk to the kitchen to grab some cheesy poofs. The distance may seem short, but before you get there, you have to walk halfway there. But before you can walk halfway there, you have to walk halfway to the halfway point. But first you have to walk halfway to halfway to halfway. And so on. This is why people have butlers.

If there’s a finite distance between Halloween and Christmas—and there is; we have calendars that tell us so—an infinite number of events can take place between the two dates before we can make it to December 25. So that’s why we're currently experiencing such a jam-packed month of sudsy proportions.

Explains: Why so many things can happen in a month, why the passage of time is of no consequence.

Does Not Explain: Who gave me the right to manipulate a time-honored philosophical tradition to explain the timeline of a teen soap.

4. The Liars Are Super Seniors

Because these girls are so busy solving puzzles, running from shadows, and ducking the lingering gazes of Rosewood men, their careers as high-school seniors have been summarily “extended” in accordance with their ridiculous truancy records. What we believe to be another season within the confines of a single senior year is actually a bunch of episodes taking place within their senior half-decade.

Explains: The time needed for events to occur, why the school hasn’t disciplined the Liars’ for never, ever being in class anymore.

Does Not Explain: Why no one has even spoken of college since they found Tippi the Parrot.

5. The Record is Skipping

What keeps Ravenswood weird and allows Rosewood to drift through its own timeline independent of our conception of passing days and weeks is a giant electromagnetic presence deep below the the Pennsylvanian countryside. The A syndicate is actually a network of people from the future who also live in the past, and they're here to maintain this timestream so that events run their proper course. A has no desire to actually torture the girls; he/she/they just needs to ensure that certain events happen as they should. Or maybe they don’t. Some of them just believe that whatever happens, happens. Just go with it, Lafleur.

Explains: Why A is still torturing the Liars even though they haven’t really done anything wrong in a while without A’s prodding.

Does Not Explain: Who the people in the outrigger were.

6. We're Dealing With Titans of Star Stuff

Everyone in Rosewood is actually an ageless god for whom the mortal conception of time does not apply. The Liars' “senior year” is actually a million billion years in our understanding, and Rosewood exists in a cosmic vacuum on a plane beyond everyone’s normal conception of time, and the only person who can comprehend such an idea is Neil deGrasse Tyson, who tells the writers what happens in the Pretty Little Liars universe each week through a complex system involving spectroscopy and the whispers of the tardigrades in a drop of dew.

Explains: Why time and life are meaningless.

Does Not Explain: Why anyone should care whether Caleb eats fried zucchini and brownies for dinner.

Think you’ve got a better idea? What’s your theory?

  • Comments (49)
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  • Huskyguy30 Aug 20, 2014

    Thinking about this show with any realism hurts. If we're being honest, the amount of psychological and physical trauma these girls have been through in such a truncated period of time would've landed them all at Radley in solitary confinement. These bitches would be cray cray. The fact that the show has them THIS put together at all would mean they are severely disassociative and/or just as sociopathic as their tormentors. But, it's TV and entertainment! We can all watch teenage girls get psychologically tormented beyond belief for fun. We ALL belong at Radley.

  • christinawoodruff58 Aug 19, 2014

    I'm going with Zenos dichotomy paradox. But if you think PLL is bad, you should look at Teen Wolf. We've had basically five season and four years in real time, but only one year has passed in the show.

  • rebekkahschaefer Jan 20, 2015

    I'm late to the party but I will point out that everything thats happened on teen wolf could totally take place in a year. we probably only have seen a few months worth of actual days in that we have seen what should be at least three months of time since the season three Train halloween episode. Simply judging by the factors. Also since its christmas one month after mona dies exactly that means everything has taken place between October 30ish, given the possibility that the schools halloween event wasn't on halloween, and november 25 at the latest. so at best we are talking four weeks. for the events of two full seasons to take place. Teen wolf can't compete with those numbers.

  • nasedoofantar Aug 19, 2014

    One has to remember that PLL is basically a soap opera, where the slow passage of time is the norm, suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite, small children age rapidly so they can have their own story arcs & their parents don't appear as negligent, teenagers drive brand new luxury cars, extended character absences allow allow the show to make a fuss about it when they return, parents are so absent it's no wonder their children get in so much mischief, cell phone service is lost when you need it most, police are somehow more inept than in real life, court cases, incarcerations, & executions are expedited, and while former romances still leave a mark you can still get a cup of coffee with someone who once tried to kill you.

  • CaitlinRice Aug 19, 2014

    Generally, I can be pretty lenient with timelines. But PLL definitely tries my patience in that department. When I think of everything that has supposedly happened in a span of 2 months it's ridiculous.

    Granted, I don't expect a show of this nature to be fully grounded in reality. That would be dull. And I do want to see things happen to the characters. Again, the show would be absolutely boring if anything ever happened.

    The problem ultimately stems from the I Marlene King and the other writers. They have a lot of story left that they want to tell. But they realize that the stories won't really work once the girls graduate (if they even manage that - Spencer's the only one who probably has a lock on that anymore). Any teen-centered show struggles once you put the leads in a college environment (and there is no universe where I realistically see all 4 going to the same school), so the writers know they have a limited amount of time to work with.

    And, honestly, there is no show once we know the identity of Uber A. Once we know that, there is nothing driving the show forward anymore. So we're just expected to go with it. But it's definitely getting harder and harder to do so.

  • rebekkahschaefer Jan 20, 2015

    Actually its not even two months its one because after mona dies there is a thirty day time skip to christmas time. So all the events since the train halloween episode take place between, at best, october 25 and november 25.

    I say october 25 because some schools won't schedule events on Halloween for various reasons and the trick or treating might also have had a date change because of things like weather conditions on the 31 or maybe it fell on a school night so the county changed the official trick or treating date.

    If not then the time span becomes even shorter. Which is basically impossible. considering several of the time lines actual time related events.

  • Ian281099 Aug 19, 2014

    I've only seen a few episodes of this show, thanks to my younger sister, can someone please explain to me why can't the girls just go to the police or tell their parents to move.

  • NicholasCampb Aug 19, 2014

    There won't be a satisfactory answer to this but I'll take a stab at it.

    For a while, the reason that they couldn't go to the police because there were several members that were involved in the bullying plot (aka "there's no one we can trust"). Once those members were cleared out one way or another, we got a couple of honest detectives (honest as far as we know) but, because the girls are harboring a fount of secrets in their once-dead/now-not friend and some other incriminating things that've happened over the past few seasons (mostly prodded by those bullies), they're afraid of the police for different reasons.

    Telling their parents is a little more troublesome. It probably comes under the "A hurts anyone we tell" clause of the Liars' (a collective term for the protagonists) and A's tacit agreement. Also, moving doesn't necessarily allow them to escape of A incorporated, which has also made its presence known in local area towns, Philadelphia, and as far away as California.

    That being said, the Liars have come up with an idea within the last couple episodes to come clean to the police and beat A to the punch. There are a few mitigating factors out there that could interfere with that plan but, rest assured, everyone has thought the same thing as you.

  • Ian281099 Aug 19, 2014

    So, what your saying is that at first they couldn't go to the police because the cops were in on their bullying, and then, when they could go they had already committed some crimes they didn't want the police to know. Why couldn't the liars say they were coerced to do those crimes, I mean, don't they have the emails and texts that A sends them. Obviously, I'm analyzing this show I don't even watch too much, but I'm pretty sure a teenager under those circumstances would have either told the police, their parents, a shrink, or killed himself.

  • NicholasCampb Aug 20, 2014

    No, your projections are understandable. That's the missing factor from not watching the show is why these girls always seem to do the thing that hurts them. That factor is the the fear and anxiety caused by bullying. A (the bully, used as a singular but is certainly more than one person) seems to always be one step ahead of them so any obvious choice (tell a parent, tell the police, just ignore the bullying) is mitigated by that constant fear that it's a trap. Everything is a trap. The answer to everything, weak in some occasions and humbling in others, is that these people are trapped in a very strong culture of fear. And you can imagine how helpless and small people could feel after two years of anonymous bullying.

    Or I might be over-rationalizing it myself.

  • CaitlinRice Aug 19, 2014

    That is the eternal question of this show.

  • jtgreat_20 Aug 19, 2014

    its okey. glee's senior year last for 2 season too....

  • rebekkahschaefer Jan 20, 2015

    Yes but wasn't that the whole year? All this had to take place in one month for the events of the recent christmas episode to be plausible.

  • othsmallsuplost Aug 19, 2014

    You're right, it is weird but the weirdest part is that they said "A crazy ride" was supposed to be during fall on their senior year and yet, there was another Halloween episode to launch Ravenswood. So they did a Halloween party in the summer?! Hahah!

  • rebekkahschaefer Jan 20, 2015

    It wasn't a Halloween party it was just a costume party.

  • sergeantandre Aug 19, 2014

    Our perception of time in this show is wrong. It's like we are trapped UNDER THE DOME or LOST on an island. BUT this show is not fantasy, it should be reality and this one of the reasons why I had to cross PLL off my dead-pool list weeks ago. It's not enticing to me anymore so I called in the WOLVES....

  • nasedoofantar Aug 19, 2014

    Anyone remember how That '70s show dragged out 2 years of High School with too many Halloween & Valentine's Day episodes? It's amazing how quickly Fez evolved in just a few years and how Eric was in Africa for just a few months but they treated it like a year.

  • MaschaC91 Aug 19, 2014

    They've had like... 4 (?) Halloween specials already, or does the crazy town of Rosewood like to throw Halloween party's anytime of the year? (or am I confused and did they only throw a Halloween party in the first season?)
    And I don't really know how college applications work in the US, but somewhile ago, Spencer was all stressed out because she was too late for an early application (or however you call it) and she was already rejected from one college. So... does that really happen between Halloween and Christmas? Because where I live, we can hand in our applications for university up until the first of May.

  • kevbuffylost108 Aug 19, 2014

    They have had 3 Halloween specials
    Season 2's Halloween episode took place BEFORE the start of the show
    Season 3's Halloween episode took place on Halloween in the current timeline
    Season 4's Halloween episode did NOT take place on Halloween, it was labelled a Halloween special because it aired over the October month and it was basically a Pilot before the actual Pilot of Ravenswood

    It still doesn't explain the messed up time line but they have only had ONE Halloween event in the shows tenure.

  • MaschaC91 Aug 19, 2014

    Ah yes, I remember, thanks!
    I would really like to see the timeline move forward. Well.. hopefully after the christmas special thing will speed up, but that's probably just idle hope.

  • kevbuffylost108 Aug 19, 2014

    I think they are gonna do a time jump because of the actors' respective ages. I hope we don't get to see the college years when Troian is pushing 30 (She's beautiful but it must suck for her to be a 30 year old playing a teen)

    I love PLL but even i think the time line is so ridiculous and needs to be scrutinised by fans and critics.

    It's so hard to believe that Toby was a hoodie not long ago in the time line (October time i'm guessing) yet about a billion storyline developments has happened since then and it's not even December yet.

  • NicholasCampb Aug 19, 2014

    To bolster kev's statement of fact about the time jump, Marlene King wants to 'jump' the college years after season 5.

  • NicholasCampb Aug 19, 2014

    This comment has been removed.

  • MaschaC91 Aug 19, 2014

    We'll probably get an 'Easter special' about three seasons from now :P

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