TV Review: ‘Cruel Summer’

Review by James Lindorf

Freeform is taking a step outside their comfort zone of sitcoms and lighthearted family dramas with the new time-jumping thriller “Cruel Summer.” The series was created by Bert V. Royal, the writer of “Easy A.” Sklyin, Texas, like most small TV towns, runs on gossip and secrets. Still, nothing prepares them for what would take place over three summers in the early 1990s. After making its world premiere at SXSW Online, 2021 “Cruel Summer” launches with a two-hour event on Tuesday, April 20th at 9 p.m. After the series premiere, new episodes will air Tuesdays at 10pm and will be available the next day on Hulu.

On June 21st, 1993, shy nerdy Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) is celebrating her birthday with her two best friends Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) and Vince (Allius Barnes). While the trio visits the mall, Jeanette runs into Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt), Skylin’s golden girl. Kate is popular, beautiful, and dating Jamie (Froy Gutierrez), the high school king, to her queen. The two girls have a friendly but distant relationship based on having very little in common until Kate goes missing at least. With Kate gone by June 21st, 1994, Jeanette has received a “She’s All That” makeover. Mallory and Vince are old news, and in their place are Kate’s old best friends and Jeanette’s new boyfriend Jamie. All Good things must come to an end; on June 21st, 1995, Jeanette is the most hated person in Skylin and a national pariah. When she has nothing left to lose, she decides to fight back against her accusers. Every episode of Cruel Summer follows one day in all three timelines, and each one is told from either Kate or Jeanette’s point of view.

Nothing happens in the episodes shown at SXSW that says “Cruel Summer” needs to take place in the ’90s. Whether Royal was trying to avoid explaining away cell phones or just really loves Bananarama, he does successfully pull at those nostalgia heartstrings. There are plenty of looming pitfalls ahead, however. Interweaving three timelines for an extended period could quickly become convoluted if Royal and his team aren’t keeping track of all the details. Even without getting lost in time, the show’s energy could fizzle out like so many other shows that fail to fulfill their potential.

It is safe to assume that we only expect the series to get so dark given its target audience. There are plenty of near-adult and adult themes, especially when it comes to the creepy new teacher. Even when there is violence, including the black eye Jeanette receives from a guy she cares about, it never feels unwarranted or glorified. It feels natural to the story being told; just don’t expect that story to come anywhere near “Gone Girl.”

Since the days of “Greek” and “Kyle XY,” I rarely returned to Freeform as a fan, but that is changing thanks to “Cruel Summer.” The best way to describe the new series is as a young adult version of “Knives Out,” a movie I thoroughly loved. By the end of the first night, we have a good idea of what happened between Jeanette and Kate. The problem is that we have no clue how and if all the pieces fit together, and that’s where the fun comes in. If Royal can keep the twists coming and tension high, “Cruel Summer” should take over Freeform’s record for audience numbers.

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