Freeform’s new suspense drama Cruel Summer conjures up a twisty premise that is intriguing but often vexing. Every episode is set on a specific day over three summers in the ’90s, chronicling the upheaval in the lives of two disparate teens: the dorky Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) and queen bee Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt). The episodes alternate between their points of view, slowly filling in the gaps between the years during which Kate was kidnapped, Jeanette became the new popular girl at school, as well as the aftermath of these events. It’s a fascinating concept backed by strong performances, but all the time-jumping is sure to cause whiplash.
Cruel Summer takes nonlinear storytelling to an extreme. It’s not exactly confusing (nothing can beat Westworld here, right?), because the show does an effective job distinguishing between time periods with visuals, color themes, and personality changes for almost everyone, especially Jeanette and Kate. It’s still frustrating to see all the plot lines condensed into just one particular day of every summer without spending sufficient time in any of them. The limited focus means limited context for the characters’ actions and dynamics. The back-and-forth is initially entertaining and does build suspense, but four episodes in, the format wears out its welcome.
The show kicks off in June 1993 on Jeanette’s 15th birthday, which she spends with her close-knit family and two best friends, Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) and Vince (Allius Barnes). A year later, she has shed her shy personality and is now the popular girl with a new set of friends. By the summer of 1994, she’s essentially replaced Kate as the local It Girl, even dating Kate’s former boyfriend Jamie (Froy Gutierrez). At this point, Kate has been missing for a whole year and a shocking accusation about her whereabouts threaten to bring down the new life Jeanette has created for herself. The show also takes us a year ahead to the summer of 1995, where the scenes are portrayed with darker tones to mirror the downward spiral of the show’s two young protagonists. This provides a smart contrast to the 1993-set scenes, which use a sunnier palette to highlight Jeanette and Kate’s naïveté.
The show is at its strongest when it focuses sharply on Jeanette and Kate’s psyches. The two teens turn into gossip fodder—not just in their small Texas town of Skylin but also in the national media. It further troubles them to be in the spotlight, as everyone picks sides and tries to put labels on them. Jeanette becomes a pariah overnight for her apparent role in Kate’s vanishing. It’s also evidenced as early as episode two that everything isn’t as straightforward as Kate is pretending it to be. Cruel Summer manages to overcome its convoluted storytelling because it finds interesting, grounded ways to explore the impact of society’s expectations of these young girls, and how their town and own families contribute to the pressure they face.
Fortunately, Cruel Summer doesn’t box either lead into teenage stereotypes. Kate is fashionable and well liked, but she’s no Regina George by any means; she’s naturally friendly to everyone. Jeanette is introverted and socially awkward, but there are hints of a more adventurous, even rebellious attitude early on. Their fleshed-out, gray area characteristics, despite the show’s limiting structure, makes it easy to root for them equally. It helps that Aurelia and Holt capture the differences of the three summers—in which they’re essentially new characters each time—with aplomb. Aurelia plays to the thrills of Jeanette’s social evolution just as well as she does her downfall. Her 1995 persona is the most defiant as she is socially outcast, but Aurelia’s emotionally layered performance elicits empathy for Jeanette. Similarly, Holt is affable as the soft-spoken Kate in 1993, excelling in bringing out the struggles simmering beneath the surface of her character’s liveliness.
Cruel Summer doesn’t sensationalize its mystery or the people involved in it like some other young adult thrillers, including Pretty Little Liars. There’s an effort to show realistic impacts of the events as they unfold also on Jeanette and Kate’s friends and family members, especially their mothers. The series also offers a compelling parallel between Jeanette’s relationship with her mom Cindy Turner (Sarah Drew), that of Kate and her mom Joy Wallis (Andrea Anders), and how Cindy and Joy’s own bond became frayed during their high school years. When it focuses on character and performances, Cruel Summer finds unexpected depth. It almost makes up for the slow-burn answers to the mystery of Kate’s kidnapping and what she might have experienced, whether or not Jeanette was involved, and how this entire puzzle is presented in an unnecessarily complex storytelling device.