I had to give up taking notes on Cruel Summer, Freeform’s new 90s-set teen mystery series, about 2,000 words in.
For one thing, there was just so much going on, and almost none of it fell into the category of Chill to Share in a Pre-Air Review. More pressingly, though, was the fact that—to make sure I got the tiny details of any one scene right without missing any of the equally important, equally tiny details in the next—I found myself having to hit the pause button basically every 20 seconds. I mean, sure; I cut my TV teeth writing 6,000-word recaps of Pretty Little Liars. But with a full four (out of eight) episodes of Cruel Summer made available to critics for review, it quickly became apparent that such an obsessive approach wasn’t going to be sustainable.
That said, the very density that prompted me to get 2,000 words deep in a meticulous kind of madness before changing course is precisely the thing that’s likely to turn Cruel Summer into the internet’s next big generation-spanning hit. Truly, from its complex, triple-layered timeline to its compellingly intimate POV-flipping narrative structure to its viscerally accurate mid-90s details, Cruel Summer is custom-built to be an object of social media obsession.
Normally, this is the point at which I’d say something like, “for anyone who hasn’t already made Freeform their springtime TV home, here’s what that network’s ocean of promos will have told you Cruel Summer is all about…” But while a couple of slick trailers have dropped over the last several weeks, and while they’ve definitely flooded Freeform’s (and, by vertically integrated extension, Hulu’s) airwaves, the show they all seem to be advertising is so much less than the series showrunner Tia Napolitano and her team have actually made.
On the one hand, this is to be expected: The latest psychological thriller to come out of Jessica Biel’s Iron Ocean Productions (which previously brought Limetown to Facebook and The Sinner to USA), Cruel Summer takes an unapologetically convoluted approach to its overlapping she said / she said narratives. Not only does the series swap whose perspective it follows from episode to episode—getting inside the head of nerd-turned-pariah Jeanette (Chiara Aurelia) one week before jumping into golden girl-turned-trauma victim Kate’s psyche (Olivia Holt) the next—but it also does some of the most wild things with time that I’ve ever seen a TV series even attempt. Simultaneously set over the course of three consecutive summers (1993, 1994, 1995), each new step in the girls’ interconnected stories shifts and slides around every other, often in the space of a single, slyly crafted shot. (See Jeanette’s vanity mirror scene at the end of the first episode for a particularly sharp example of this temporal malleability.)
To expect a couple of trailers to successfully capture even a fraction of the experience Cruel Summer wants to give its audience, then, would be ridiculous. At the same time, the experience Cruel Summer wants to give its audience is so formally ambitious and psychologically absorbing that to think there might be any slice of its ideal audience these trailers won’t reach is a bummer.
So, for everyone reading—Freeform stans and not—this is what Cruel Summer is about:
In the one corner, you have Aurelia’s Jeanette Turner, who at any given moment is a sweetly awkward 15, or a recently popular 16, or a universally despised 17, and who may or may not be guilty of compounding another girl’s trauma. In the other corner, you have Holt’s Kate Wallis, who at any given moment is a universally beloved 15, or a freshly traumatized 16, or an acidly angry 17. In between them, you have a gulf of not-knowing—a not-knowing that at any given moment might come from one character’s inherent duplicity, the natural gaps in another’s first-hand knowledge of a situation, or the fundamental unreliability of memory even before intense emotion is involved. There are some truths that are more real for some characters, and less for others; some realities that are more tangible in one moment than they are in the next. The likelihood that one girl is lying and the other telling the truth hangs over Cruel Summer like a thundercloud, but in giving the audience just one walled-off chunk of each girl’s side of the narrative at a time, the possibility that they’re both telling a story that’s true to them is just as present.
It is true that by the end of the pilot, we understand that yes, Kate did get kidnapped sometime late in the summer of 1993, and that yes, sometime shortly thereafter, Jeanette did step into the golden girl-shaped hole she left behind. At the end of the day, though, the point is less, did Jeanette really do the reprehensible thing Kate says she did? and more what does it mean to live with the lies we tell ourselves about the truths we aren’t able to face?
Now, I will be the first to admit that—all my well-documented love for Pretty Little Liars notwithstanding—I’m not Cruel Summer’s ideal audience. I have no taste for true crime as a genre, and dislike the kind of gleeful withholding of key facts that psychological thrillers traffic in as a rule. (I have no patience for manipulated anxiety, in general; give me spoilers or give me death!) All the same, Cruel Summer manages to overcome all the defenses a viewer like me might put up. In weaving together so many perspectives, across so many timelines, there’s just too much going on at any given moment for the fact that the series continues to hang on to its biggest secrets to even register. Sure, I care about what actually happens (or doesn’t!) between Kate and Jeanette after Kate is kidnapped, but the textures of their respective lives are so rich—and the production choices that differentiate the worlds of ‘93, ‘94 and ‘95 so smart —that I can find more than enough to keep me engaged as I wait for Napolitano and crew to lay out the mystery’s most important pieces.
Honestly, just tracking the core characters across all three timelines is a treat. Aurelia and Holt are both exceptional, of course—the latter having recently killed it as Tandy on Freeform’s Cloak & Dagger, and the former coming in with a CV so precisely tuned to a show like Cruel Summer you’d almost suspect her team of some mean girl machinations of their own—but the transformations that fellow Skylin teens Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith), Vincent (Allius Barnes) and Jamie (Froy Guttierez) undergo are just as fascinating. I mean, young adults playing teens is a known phenomenon. Seeing so many talented actors actively embody the same character at formative ages as wildly different as 15, 16 and 17, though? That’s something else altogether. These kids! They really got it!
Of course, more engaging still (at least for Millennial audiences) might be the show’s mid-90s setting, which, apart from being so meticulously detailed that the nostalgia is almost painful, introduces a layer of social tension deeply specific to the era. I’m not just talking about the lack of cell phones/social media/widely available online trauma support groups, either. I’m talking about the role the news media played in pop culture in the 90s, and the specific ways in which it both fetishized and pathologized white teen girlhood.
To wit, starting in the very first episode, both Jeanette and Kate are shown obsessing over how the news is talking about them, both locally and on the national level—Jeanette, even, to the point that she’s got a pile of VHS tapes she has to physically rewind in order to feed her obsession. (Gen-Z audiences: Someday your TikTok technology will feel just as antiquated.) As anyone who was a white teen girl in the ‘90s knows all too well, that moment in time was a particular kind of hell—nothing at all like what Black teen girls faced, as Kate’s step-sister, Ashley (Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut), accurately underscores during a family hunting trip, but a hell all the same. In floating the mid-90s media’s take on Jeanette and Kate to the top of its story over and over again, Cruel Summer adds an important third perspective on the nature of reality, and all the ways in which it can be warped in the name of “truth.”
Ultimately, where Cruel Summer will end up fitting in a teen drama-meets-psychological thriller landscape that includes everything from Pretty Little Liars to Élite will depend on how satisfyingly Kate and Jeanette’s story ends. For now, though, the show is playing on Expert Mode, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.
The first two episodes of Cruel Summer premiere on Freeform on Tuesday, April 20 at 9pm, and will drop on Hulu on Wednesday, April 21. The remaining six episodes will air weekly, following the same schedule.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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