In 1993, 15-year-old Jeanette Turner is a sweet, geeky girl with a dark side. Just two years later, she’s the most hated girl in America. And it all has to do with the disappearance of the town’s golden girl, Kate Wallis.
Freeform’s mystery series, “Cruel Summer,” just wrapped up its first season, following Kate and Jeanette across three summers. Summer 1993 sees Jeanette develop a rebellious streak while Kate’s picture-perfect life unravels, culminating in her abduction. The 1994 timeline shows Kate newly rescued, only to find Jeanette is living her life.
All that changes when Kate alleges Jeanette saw her in captivity and refused to save her. In 1995, Jeanette sues Kate for defamation. The audience wonders: how did Kate end up kidnapped, and did Jeanette really see her and do nothing?
Builds Up to a Letdown
Unlike a typical mystery show, in which the vast ensemble makes up a varied suspect list, “Cruel Summer” uses its cast to demonstrate everyone in town is affected by the secret at the heart of Kate’s kidnapping, and how their actions affect the futures of the central teens. For some, the connection is clear, like Jeanette’s father losing his job and reputation, her only remaining friend’s steep social cost, or Kate’s stepsister’s attempts to bond post-trauma. Others feel tacked on and unconnected.
The show is structured cleverly, with each of its 10 episodes focusing on one holiday or event during each of the three summers — a birthday, carnival, hunting trip, anniversary, first day of school, etc. These milestones help clarify the timeline and show how much has changed over the years.
But with a good mystery, the key is the ending: was all of the drama building up to a satisfying conclusion? In “Cruel Summer,” the answer is a decided “meh.” The plot hinges on the central mystery of who is right, Jeanette or Kate. The middle-ground copout upon which the writers settled was aggressively anticlimactic. They clearly wanted to leave the plot open for a second season, but the banal ending sours the fairly competent setup.
A Bad Take an Abusive Relationships
The series makes some very bizarre and sometimes offensive choices in its treatment of heavy themes. The worst offender is Jamie, the love interest with ties to both Jeanette and Kate.
In the first episode, he punches then-girlfriend Jeanette and spends much of the second gaslighting Kate about his cheating by preying on her feeble, trauma-addled memory. Yet other times the narrative presents him sympathetically, as a single mom’s son whose drinking is a reaction to deep emotional pain, genuinely concerned for Kate and in love with Jeanette.
But the moment he gave his girlfriend a black eye makes attempts to give him a redemption arc ring hollow. Moreover, considering the show’s target demographic is impressionable teen girls, there is a danger to showing physical and emotional abuse as something that can just be overcome. A brief perusal of discussions on social media shows a vocal faction of fans is strongly in favor of Jeanette and Jamie continuing their romantic relationship in season two, which is concerning for the next generation’s perspective on romance.
As should be expected for a teen-oriented series, the acting is decidedly hit or miss, with some talented performances sharing the screen with stilted, unbelievable efforts.
Chiara Aurelia is relatively weak as Jeanette Turner, who seems uncomfortable in each of her character’s three personas. The geeky, sweet teen of ’93 feels like a front, whereas she never throws any weight behind the brutal resentment of ’95. She gets closest in the put-upon mean girl in ’94, but even that seems forced. For a show centered on the question of Jeanette’s trustworthiness, her weak acting makes it difficult to get a sense of what is meant to be suspicious, and what is just bad line reading.
In contrast, Olivia Holt is lovely as Kate Wallis. The kind fragility of ’93, fresh trauma of ’94, and raw anger of ’95 are all depicted with honesty, creating a believably complex central figure. The episodes focused on her perspective are easily the strongest, particularly the penultimate episode, which details exactly how she ended up in captivity in a heartbreaking display of the manipulation and abuse that preceded her imprisonment.
Blake Lee is equally charming and terrifying as kidnapper Martin Harris. His manipulation of adolescent Kate is horrifying, and he handles the balance effortlessly, going back and forth between a likable, trustworthy authority figure to a monstrous abuser. Martin is a monster from a much smarter project stuck in this vapid show.
Sarah Drew is spectacular and deserves a shout-out for her turn as Jeanette’s mother. The “Grey’s Anatomy” alumna radiates nervous energy, and her expressive eyes speak volumes more than the perfunctory dialogue. She is somewhat sidelined compared to other parents, but Drew makes the most of her role.
Fun and Nostalgic Soundtrack
The show may share a name with a Taylor Swift anthem, but the soundtrack is wonderful — especially for fans of ’90s music, pairing iconic songs with lesser-known gems. The songs are ideally placed within the plot.
A secret couple’s furtive slow-dance set to Mazzy Star’s “Fade into You,” angsty teens dancing to The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” friends’ banter set to the bassline from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It” (sampled from “Walk on the Wild Side”), and a mournful cover of Oasis’s “Wonderwall” for a traumatic flashback are just a handful of exceptional musical choices.
“Cruel Summer” is exactly as advertised: a shallow, lurid teen mystery with some fun and little substance. It makes a compelling and important point about grooming with Kate and Martin, but fundamentally undercuts it with the casual treatment of Jamie’s physical abuse of Jeanette.
The story has potential but devolves into harmful and dumb adolescent clichés. If you’re seeking an intelligent thriller, look elsewhere, but fans of sensationalized high school mysteries may enjoy.