“Cruel Summer” piques curiosity on several levels. On the surface, Freeform’s marketing has been intense, with trailers and commercials giving just enough intrigue to entice fans — many of whom may not already be regular viewers of the network formerly known as ABC Family, given its common associations with millennial or Disney viewers. But the cable channel’s more recent shows (like “Good Trouble” and “Grown-ish”) have developed extensive followings, and there’s no doubt “Cruel Summer” will attract those same audiences.
But there’s another component to “Cruel Summer” that it’s weaponizing, and that’s nostalgia — though not in the same way Disney+ shows and other streaming series are using it. The new drama isn’t recreating its time period to get fans to point at the screen and say, “I totally had that!” It’s using the halcyon days of the ’90s to say they were anything but — they weren’t glorious, and there were flaws. We just weren’t talking about them as openly as we are now.
[Editor’s Note: The following portion of the review contains slight spoilers for “Cruel Summer.”]
“Cruel Summer” takes place over a period of three years, all on the same June day in 1993, 1994, and 1995. Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) starts off as a happy, if shy and awkward, teenager celebrating her 15th birthday. While on a trip to the mall, she runs into the town’s popular girl, Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt). From their first meeting it’s apparent that Jeanette wants, more than anything, to be popular and accepted by Kate but, as the series goes on, the machinations of their small Texas town keep up social barriers that probably would have prevented them from being friends.
When Kate disappears, Jeanette ends up blossoming, taking Kate’s friends and even dating Kate’s boyfriend. But as the summer of 1994 starts up, Kate is found and accuses Jeanette of knowing where she was the entire time. Cut to the arrival of 1995, where a drastically altered Kate and Jeanette are set to go toe-to-toe when Jeanette sues the rescued girl for defamation of character.
Because the episodes are constantly alternating between three different years, it makes each entry feel longer than their 42 minutes, and that’s not a bad thing. It forces the narrative to make deliberate choices about its focal points. We don’t need to see Jeanette “Single White Female” her way into Kate’s life. Instead, the narrative jump to 1994 shows us a Jeanette Turner free of braces and bad hair and leaves us with the question of whether, had things been different, Jeanette might have gotten those things by naturally growing into her looks.
The series isn’t necessarily a crime drama, though a crime is committed. It’s more about how people change in brief spurts of time and the effects of lasting trauma. A key element of the series is the set-up between the era, not just to differentiate what time period we’re in, but to illustrate how we see memory after something horrible happens. The world of 1993 is bright and rich. Kate, seen through Jeanette’s eyes, is a golden girl with her life in order. Even when the episode is told from Kate’s point-of-view, the world is bright but it’s evident she’s already dealing with things that could just as easily have turned her into the young woman she is by 1995.
Once Kate is rescued and starts telling people Jeanette saw her trapped in their principal’s basement, the hew changes. Scenes are filled by a light blue tint, as if a poison is dripping into everything. Once 1995 rolls around, both Jeanette and Kate are grunge-inspired in different ways, wholly different from the people we first met. Is it an abrupt, pointed way of showing transformation? Yes, but it works. It helps that just enough story is parceled out through all this to keep the audience hungry for more details on what happened in-between.
The two leads are incredibly strong in their performances, hooking into the story’s marrow. Chiara Aurelia wasn’t given much to work with in Amazon’s “Tell Me Your Secrets,” and people who watched that series might feel Jeanette is just a retread of her character there. But what makes Jeanette Turner so interesting is how Aurelia portrays her earnestness and desire to fit in. Surprisingly this doesn’t feel like her story, and much of what happens to her throughout is told by others, even when the episode is told through her POV. The 1995 storyline, wherein Jeanette is working on being “likable” to defeat Kate, gives Aurelia more meat to bite into.
The real surprise is actress Olivia Holt as Kate. Holt’s beauty and sweetness in the 1993 storyline could easily make her character a pretty princess whose rescue befits a damsel. But as we start to learn Kate might have more to hide than originally thought, and as the trauma starts to eat away at her, Holt takes on an angrier characterization that’s compelling to watch.
“Cruel Summer” will easily snatch up fans of “Pretty Little Liars,” but there’s just as many comparison points to “Big Little Lies” within this story of wealth and privilege shattered by crime. Both Holt and Aurelia’s acting keeps things moving, as does the series’ technical production. This is a delicious slice of fun akin to a great beach read.
“Cruel Summer” premieres Tuesday, April 20 at 9 p.m. ET on Freeform. Episodes will be available to stream the following day on Hulu.