Freeform is certainly no stranger to buzzy teen thrillers, having hosted the wildly popular series Pretty Little Liars. But its latest effort, the deliciously entertaining Cruel Summer, may be its best and most entertaining series yet. The wild and twisty mystery follows the aftermath of a kidnapping in a small town, and the lives of the two teen girls at the case’s center.
Cruel Summer, unlike its often bonkers Freeform cousins, is almost totally character driven. Yes, the multi-timeline format is inventive and the 1990s setting is fun. But what makes this show work is that these aspects are foremost used to illuminate the series’ characters. Here are just a few reasons why you need to make this smart thriller a summer obsession of your own.
A Pair of Compelling Heroines (or Villains)
The story of Cruel Summer revolves around Jeanette Turner and Kate Wallis, one a dorky nerd and the other a Cher Horowitz-esque popular girl. So far, so seen it, right? Hardly. After queen bee Kate mysteriously disappears, Jeannette undergoes a She’s All That-style transformation. She essentially steps into a (presumed) dead girl’s shoes; she adopts Kate’s friends, snags her boyfriend, and embraces life as a teen trendsetter. Kate is found a year later, traumatized and reeling from a stint as a hostage in the assistant principal’s basement; she accuses Jeanette of witnessing her imprisonment and leaving her at the mercy of a psychopath.
But what makes Cruel Summer so much fun to watch is that it never actually tells you which girl is our hero and which is our villain. (If such things even exist in a story like this.) Both Kate and Jeanette seem trustworthy and terrible by turns; their lives that intersect primarily in the rhyme of their spiraling rage.
The show presents Kate and Jeannette at different points in their lives, embracing both sunny optimism and paralyzing depression. This allows viewers to get to know both young women beyond good girl/bad girl stereotypes. The long-tail trauma of Kate’s imprisonment makes the mean girl more sympathetic than she appears at first glance. Meanwhile, Chiara Aurelia infuses Jeanette’s nerdy shyness with an earnest desperation and longing, complicating her choices.
A Twisty, Addictive Plot
Cruel Summer takes place across three distinct time periods in a way that should feel cheesy but doesn’t. The story uses each year to expand its larger mystery and deepen our understanding of its characters. The result is a ton of surprises, unveiled in such a way that even the most outlandish twists feel earned.
Not content to have just one unreliable narrator, Cruel Summer has at least half a dozen; this complicates our ideas of who we should believe and what kind of story we’re watching. The show certainly gives you plenty of reasons to feel suspicious; not only are Kate and Jeanette lying, but many of those around them probably are too. And as the show’s canvas expands to include parents, friends, enemies, and everything in between, well…it’s okay if you’ve got no idea at this point who we’re supposed to trust. That’s part of the fun.
Nostalgic ’90s Vibes
Set in mid-1990s small-town Texas, Cruel Summer fully embraces both the aesthetic and the attitude of the time period. Much of the ’90s was about generational suburban angst. The decade’s pop culture wrestled with the realization that the sunny promise of “ideal American life”—and the big houses and fancy cars that often came with it—didn’t necessarily make anyone any happier. (And often left them feeling more lost than ever before.)
The lack of cell phones and social media makes many of the series’ twists more plausible than they would be in our present day. A vividly ugly proto-feminist “You go girl!” necklace turns out to be a key piece of evidence that points toward Jeanette’s guilt. Plus, the soundtrack, which has thus far included everything from Garbage to Brandy, is a straight banger.
So Much More Potential Ahead
While the biggest mystery in Skylin may be whether Jeanette was somehow involved in Kate’s imprisonment, that’s hardly the only unanswered question hanging over Cruel Summer. There’s the small matter of how Kate was kidnapped and what she was forced to endure while she was held prisoner. Then there’s the fact that her stepsister is catfishing her in an online chat room after her rescue. Plus, that Kate may have lied about what she remembers. She may even have an alternate personality called “Annabelle.” (We’re not entirely sure on that last part, yet.)
There are questions about how Jeanette’s friend group fell apart, why she kept sneaking back into Martin Harris’ house, and why her mother is absent from the show’s 1995 timeline. Other characters including Vince, Mallory, and even Kate’s mother Joy are all keeping secrets of their own. And it only seems like a matter of time before they come out.
But even with so many what-ifs, there’s one thing we all know for sure. None of the answers will be anything like what we expect.