On her 15th birthday, Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) wakes up just another Texan teen with glasses, braces, frizzy hair and an uncomplicated wish to be pretty and popular. Shortly after her 17th birthday, she tells a friend, “I miss the days when nobody wanted me dead.” In just a couple of years, Jeanette’s life is turned upside down by a public allegation that has the governor of her state calling her a “disgrace” and the National Enquirer charging her with Satan worship. Jeanette may have played a key role in another girl’s months-long captivity in her kidnapper’s basement — or she may be completely innocent.
Freeform’s Cruel Summer has a lot of great hooks like that. An even better one: The pulpy YA thriller flits between 1993, 1994 and 1995 — on and shortly after Jeanette’s 15th, 16th and 17th birthdays — to compare how dramatically her life shifts after Kate Wallis’ (Olivia Holt) disappearance. Kate’s tragedy turns out to be Jeanette’s unseemly gain, with the latter taking over the missing girl’s life. Kate’s boyfriend Jamie (Froy Gutierrez) becomes her boyfriend; Kate’s best friends become her new friends. Jeanette’s devoted parents (Sarah Drew and Michael Landes) initially find the idea that their daughter had anything to do with Kate’s abduction absurd, then increasingly plausible. After Kate’s rescue and televised accusation against Jeanette, it’s imperative that she start presenting the most jury-friendly version of herself so she can stop being “the most hated person in the nation.” But the only way Jeanette can clear her name is by risking even greater disgust and revulsion from the world.
Witness Jeanette’s Princess Diaries-like transformation from her 15th year to her 16th — with her hair and skin smoothed out and her wardrobe majorly upgraded — and then her second makeover into her DGAF 17-year-old self with a seemingly home-cut shag and nary a spot of makeup, and it’s clear Cruel Summer has so much going for it. In the second episode, Kate gets her own trio of timelines, which illustrate how her life as the rich, beautiful girl with the glamorous, connected family came with its own kind of loneliness and Stepfordian pressures well before her kidnapping. All of these building blocks are clever and brimming with potential, which makes the show’s droopy, stretched-out execution all the more disappointing.
Cruel Summer is at least competent where it counts most. The hair, costume, lighting and acting choices always make clear which year we’re in, and Aurelia and Holt offer up impressively distinct versions of their characters. The show darts quickly through the different timelines, and even though we don’t always need to revisit the Edenic days before The Fall, it’s still satisfying to see the puzzle pieces snap together. The question that the series eventually asks is which girl is telling the truth about Jeanette’s possible complicity in Kate’s captivity, but that soapy mystery doesn’t take away from the emotional believability of Kate’s post-rescue unhappiness — particularly her feelings of inessential-ness and replaceability, as the world seems to have continued on in her absence, even for her closest friends and family.
But Cruel Summer doesn’t quite deliver on the pleasures it promises. Many of its surprises are predictable, and the laggard pacing saps some of the dark juiciness implied by the premise. (Despite the gravity of Kate’s ordeals, the series keeps the tone relatively light, at least in the first four episodes, by skirting the possibility of sexual assault by her kidnapper.) The early ’90s soundtrack choices and tech touchstones are so thudding — beepers, Walkmans, chat rooms — that they feel less like nostalgia trip for the portion of the audience that lived through the decade than exotic artifacts from a bygone era for viewers born after the show’s setting (though that’s fine, given Freeform’s younger demo). Even less thought-through are the allusions to the Clinton years’ tabloid culture, which is undergoing a wider revisit in media and entertainment today and which creator Bert V. Royal seems only half-interested in channeling, let alone exploring.
Cruel Summer is built around the idea that the typical choices any teenager — especially an adolescent girl — might make can be wielded against her as a sign of her ostensible sociopathy. Jeanette might have ditched her insecure best friend Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) because they grew apart, or because Mallory proved an obstacle in Jeanette’s Machiavellian climb toward popularity. And when Jeanette rehearses likability in the mirror, that might be her calculated presentation of a more broadly appealing version of herself to curry favor with those around her — or just doing what teenage girls have been doing since the invention of adolescence as a time of social experimentation and discovery of one’s true self. It’s certainly a smart and tantalizing concept to construct a show around. But as with a Tamagotchi, you always feel like you should be having more fun than you are.
Cast: Olivia Holt, Chiara Aurelia, Froy Gutierrez, Harley Quinn Smith, Allius Barnes, Blake Lee, Michael Landes, Brooklyn Sudano, Nathaniel Ashton
Creator: Bert V. Royal
Premieres Tuesday, April 19, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Freeform