Watching The Summer I Turned Pretty gave me a bit of an identity crisis.
Have I, the woman who loves Beverly Hills 90210, Dawson’s Creek, and The O.C. outgrown the genre? The seven-episode series about 15-year-old Belly (Lola Tung) and her love for two brothers should have been perfect for me. I positively adore a good TV love triangle. And TV bad boys with a heart of gold (your Dylan McKays, Ryan Atwoods, and Tim Riggins) are my TV kryptonite. I’m usually powerless against them. But dear lord watching the seven episode Prime Video series was tedious.
Based on the 2009 book of the same name by Jenny Han, who also serves as showrunner, the series follows Belly, who every summer comes to Cousin’s Beach with her mom Laurel (Jackie Chung) and her older brother Steven (Sean Kaufman). They stay at the gorgeous beach house of her mom’s best friend, Susannah (Rachel Blanchard). Belly has grown up with Susannah’s two sons: the easygoing Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno) and the brooding Conrad (Christopher Briney). And she has pined for Conrad ever since she can remember. This summer, as the title of the series suggests, the brothers are starting to see Belly as more than just a little kid.
Suffice to say that The Summer I Turned Pretty fails the Bechdel test spectacularly. Belly spends all seven episodes only discussing Jeremiah and Conrad. The crux of the problem is that in the best TV love triangles, viewers ricochet back and forth on who to root for. Did we want Carrie with Big or Aidan on Sex and the City? Should Liza be with Josh or Charles on Younger? Our allegiance may change from season to season or episode to episode. But on The Summer I Turned Pretty neither boy is that great an option. Jeremiah is clearly just a friend to her and Conrad is, by design, so closed off viewers don’t even know him. The script relies on other characters to tell us how amazing Conrad is. “To Belly, Conrad is the sun, and when the sun comes out the stars disappear,” Laurel says. I mean if you say so, Laurel.
Laurel is an author I think? It’s referenced in the first two episodes and then mostly forgotten about. Also, Susannah paints but it seems more of just a hobby. Sure, everyone deserves a vacation and downtime, but throughout the series I just kept thinking maybe it would be more interesting if some of the characters had jobs or some sort of purpose beyond navel gazing. Maybe Belly should be babysitting or working as a summer counselor-in-training. Anything to break up her constant fixation on Conrad. (Is this the parent in me talking? Would 16-year-old me have cared if Belly just dreamily tanned all day? I was also upset that Belly rides around without a bike helmet!)
The first season is built around Belly making her debut in the Cousin’s Beach Debutante Ball, which in and of itself is such an anachronism—even if one of the girls making her debut gets to bring another girl as her date and has the LQBTQ Student Union as her charity. It’s just odd in 2022 to see teenage girls in fancy white dresses and long white gloves curtseying.
And So. Much. Time. is spent on who Belly will bring as her date to the debutante ball. I’ve been expressly forbidden from telling you the outcome. What I can share is that by the time the ball happens in the season finale I didn’t care who she brought, I was screaming at my screener, “Choose you, Belly! Choose you!” Spoiler alert: She does not choose herself.
The series is striving to capture that feeling of first love, of growing up and finding your own path. There’s moody music, hazy photography, and characters in slow motion. And yet, none of it quite works. At times there are glimmers of what the series could have been. When all the escorts do a coordinated dance at the ball, the show is infused with energy.
But then the dialogue is, at times, cringe-inducing. “You’re in bloom!” Susannah says to Belly. “I think my mom just got railed,” Belly tells Jeremiah after her mom returns to the house disheveled.
Other times the dialogue just doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense. “Girls aren’t supposed to know if we are pretty or not. We’re supposed to wait for other people to tell us before we are allowed to feel it about ourselves,” Belly says dramatically in one voice over. Say what now? So much emphasis is put on Belly’s appearance and the idea that now that her braces and glasses are gone, she’s pretty.
What’s also missing is the charm, humor and joy of the Netflix To All the Boys movies, which are also based on a series of books by Han. There’s no spark to the performances here. Nothing to make you want to keep watching.
I won’t tell you how the season ends. I’m not even allowed to tell you what song is playing over the closing credits! But The Summer I Turned Pretty is a trilogy of books and the series has already been picked up for a second season. How much longer can Belly bounce between the two brothers? Should Belly instead download a dating app? Maybe she’ll meet someone new at the summer job I’m going to find for her.
All seven episodes of The Summer I Turned Pretty premiere June 17 on Prime Video.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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