emergency discussion

What’s Going on With Cruel Summer?

Photo: Bill Matlock/Freeform

Justin Curto: So, we’re here because we simply have to talk about Cruel Summer — not the Taylor Swift bop, but the mysterious, time-hopping, gloriously messy new teen series on Freeform. I started watching it a few weeks ago, when I saw a preview and realized this show could fill the Riverdale–size gap in my heart, and now that we’ve reached the midpoint of the season, it hasn’t disappointed. Brennan, what got you into Cruel Summer, and what have you made of it all so far?

Brennan Carley: I would like to also nod to the Bananarama song “Cruel Summer” before any fellow pop gays come for us on Twitter! Personally, I won’t hesitate to pull the plug on anything — a show that has run its course, a movie that isn’t keeping my attention, an album overstuffed with filler — meaning my pop-cultural diet is a supremely amorphous playing field littered with half-watched seasons of Riverdale and screeners just withering on the vine. Finding time for something new, like Cruel Summer, is really a matter of time and fate aligning. I’m also someone who likes a full menu of shows to choose from: Top Chef during dinner, an episode of UNHhhh before bed, the Snyder Cut of Justice League to numb my mind on a weeknight. Cruel Summer snuck into my life because the people of the DeuxMoi Extended Universe couldn’t stop raving about it, and because my Mare of Easttown screeners ran out, and I needed another medium-stakes, high-drama hour of crime and intrigue to add to the mix — and I’m so glad I did. Justin, what about the first few episodes got you hooked? What’s making you return to the series every week now that we’re halfway through?

JC: I love a show that gets me theorizing about what’s going to happen next, and Cruel Summer does exactly that. A quick setup for those who aren’t watching: The show follows two high-school girls from the tight-knit Texas town of Skylin, Jeanette Turner and Kate Wallis, over three summers in the mid-1990s. In the summer of 1993, Jeanette is a nerd and Kate is a cool girl who eventually gets kidnapped and held for months in the new assistant principal’s basement; in ’94, Jeanette has become the cool girl, getting in with Kate’s friends and boyfriend, until Kate is found and says Jeanette saw her in the basement months before her release; by ’95, Kate is unpacking her trauma and putting her life back together while Jeanette has been ostracized and is preparing for an eventual trial — which, we eventually learn, is a defamation lawsuit against Kate.

That’s part of what got me hooked at first: trying to put together what the hell was even happening between the time jumps and withheld details. After watching Firefly Lane, another messy series with messier time jumps, I was nervous they wouldn’t work with Cruel Summer, but it turns out that’s what’s been keeping me engaged — getting to see what happens later on, and then seeing (and speculating) how we get there. On top of it all, the characters are fun, and even though Jeanette (newcomer Chiara Aurelia) and Kate (ex-Disney star Olivia Holt) are both possibly caught in their own lies, I find myself rooting for both of them. I’m curious, do the time jumps work for you? And have you taken sides in the drama of it all?

BC: I have taken a side, and the horse I’ve decided to hitch my cart to is Kate, played by pop chanteuse Olivia Holt (whose 2016 single “History” holds up quite nicely, I should say), though I’m equally invested in both story lines. The writers have a done a really lovely job of balancing the seesaw between the two leads. Jeanette (surly, spiteful, and generally just kind of cantankerous) can be hard to root for, but I think that’s because the show is playing off of audience expectations about convention and likability. We see both of these characters take very different journeys: Jeanette gets the chance to reinvent her life as a cool girl but finds her reputation plummeting after the rumors start swirling, while Kate gets the chance to reclaim her throne after her kidnapping, and instead finds herself questioning the small-town life of privilege and “perfection” she’d once grown accustomed to. I like the yin to the other’s yang, and even though we’re not getting a ton of shared screen time between the two, I think their story lines are intertwined in a way that works.

The time-jumping tracks nicely for me, give or take a confusing moment — sometimes it moves so quickly between years that all we’re given is a colored filter to help our brains adjust. But what’s working most about those jumps is the way they allow Cruel Summer’s bench of excellent players to flex and shine. For me, the two most compelling characters (beyond our leads) are the mothers: Joy Wallis, played by Andrea Anders (formerly of one of the best network sitcoms to ever exist, Better Off Ted), and Cindy Turner, played by Sarah Drew (known to many from her years on Grey’s Anatomy). With Anders’ work in particular, I cannot stop watching her go from full Texas camp to lip-curled mama bear with an ax to grind; it’s remarkable work that I think could, in another actor’s hands, fall prey to the “yes, we’re a show for teens, about teens” of it all, but Cruel Summer manages to (mostly!) transcend those binaries.

Who else on the show are you loving? Which plot points have caught your attention the most?

JC: Yeah, the lack of shared screen time is actually what helped me come around on Kate — after a few episodes, I was sure she wasn’t telling the whole truth about her accusations toward Jeanette. (I’m still not!) But episode four, “You Don’t Hunt, You Don’t Eat,” got me because it didn’t feature Jeanette at all, and instead dug into some of the pressures Kate feels as a member of Skylin’s high society, both before and after her kidnapping. That moment around the campfire during the 1995 hunting trip, where she took the adults to task for letting Martin, her eventual kidnapper, into their circle, may have been my specific turning point. Which also leads me to the adults: I love them too! I have a soft spot for a mom on a teen show who’s dealing with her own shit (shoutout to perfect Freeform series The Fosters), so I also feel sympathetic toward Joy, who has clearly gotten caught up trying to keep up her status in Skylin while realizing it’s not making her happy.

The character who I continue to be most invested in is Jeanette’s (former?) friend Vince (Allius Barnes), who takes a more understanding position on Jeanette’s newfound popularity and seems to become a bit of a confidante and ally as she heads to trial. He is also, as we learn in episode three, a closeted gay teen in Texas in the ’90s! More than even knowing why he’s still aligned with Jeanette after she ditches him and their friend Mallory in summer ’94, I want to know more about his relationship with Ben — who, as we saw in episode two, seems to have turned against Jeanette by ’95. While it didn’t have anything to do with the larger plot, the moment when Vince and Ben walked into a secret gay bar to dance together as Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” played, as cheesy as it was, really hit me in the feels! I want more of that!

It also hit as one of the show’s better needle drops so far, after overusing the Cranberries’ “Zombie” early on and dropping an absolutely chaotic piano cover of Green Day’s “She” as we see Kate enter her bedroom for one of the first times post-kidnapping. As contrived as it can sometimes feel, though, the music has been part of what makes the show entertaining to me — one of the ways in which it can be the fun kind of messy. I definitely don’t think Cruel Summer is a perfect show: What else is not working for you right now?

(Also, I don’t know where else to put that, while I don’t like him, Kate’s turned Jeanette’s turned nobody’s boyfriend Jamie [Teen Wolf’s Froy Gutierrez] is a perfect himbo character.)

BC: (I refer to said himbo as Not Shawn Mendes whenever he shows up, so you and I are on the same page here.)

The needle drops have been great, and the anachronisms mercifully scant — this is a show that feels like the 1990s without banging you on the head about it. The fashion, the haircuts, the chunky necklaces (one in particular, which, if you’re watching, you know all about already) transport me back in time fairly successfully.

I think you nailed it, though: I love mess, as do you, so while most of Cruel Summer’s track record is pretty impressive thus far, I’m finding that the plot holes — intentional or otherwise — are starting to lose me as the season progresses. Cruel Summer falls into the trap that’s downed so many recent televised thrillers, which is the third-act reveal and fade-to-black. We’re learning a lot of big-picture stuff in the final moments of every episode, and while there’s some lovely and thoughtful world-building happening in minutes one through 40, I’d love to have some of that space feel less expository and more plot-advancing — even if that means relocating the big reveals just so our weekly cliffhangers don’t feel so rote and obvious.

On the subject of world-building, though I took this on as a Mare substitute, it’s not doing as graceful a balancing act of handling every beat thoughtfully. There’s some subplots I love — one mother cheating with a landscaper; Vince’s aforementioned queer awakening — but part of me thinks that if the best writing and plotting is going to go to Kate and Jeanette, then I’d rather we just spend more time with them. That said, the renaissance of television’s Golden Age Cruel Summer is not, nor do I want it to be, which is why I’m comfortable soaking up the cheese, like that karaoke scene between Jeanette and her dad’s new girlfriend, and anytime Kate shoots her mother a withering look (in any timeline, really — give me all the withering looks).

Justin, there’s at least a handful of major loose ends we’re still waiting for the show to tie up at this point, including: how Kate got kidnapped, the truth of Jeanette’s sighting (or not!), Jeanette’s transformation from not to hot, why Jeanette’s mom ended up leaving, Kate’s chat room (chat room!!!!) confession that she’s not being fully truthful, who the hell Annabelle might be. With five episodes left in the season, what are you hoping gets cleared up? Assuming this ratings juggernaut has already been picked up internally for a second, even crueler summer, what do you think we’ll actually get answers to?

JC: Ah, yes, how could I forget that karaoke scene to one of the best, cheesiest karaoke songs ever, “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes? A lot of what you’re bringing up is extremely valid (and not just calling Jamie “Not Shawn Mendes,” which made me cackle). The show plays up its end-of-episode reveals like it’s a streaming series, but then drags its feet getting back to those reveals to make them relevant to the plot again. (I am once again asking, WHO IS ANABELLE??) I also just think there might be too many characters in the mix, especially as we’ve recently met Kate’s stepsister Ash in episode four and learned that she’s dating Jeanette’s brother Derek — which brings him closer to the drama too, since Ash has been posing as a fake member of Kate’s online trauma chat room. I sometimes struggle to keep up with everyone, and who’s on what side of it all. When Kate’s, and later Jeanette’s, friends Tennille and Renee popped back up in episode five, it took me a second to remember who those people were!

And along with wanting more of Vince and Ben’s relationship, I’m also very curious what role Ben will play in All This, since the show clearly teased him as more important than he seems early on. I think there has to be some bigger falling out between Jeanette and Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith, daughter of Kevin), which the show somewhat set up after Jeanette flushed Mallory’s mom’s pot in ’93. Mallory is one of the only characters I actively dislike right now, but I want to know more about where she’s coming from! You mention Jeanette’s parents’ divorce, and I have to think the show won’t just drop her mom, so I’m waiting for her to play a bigger role in the later episodes, and maybe even pop up in ’95, post-divorce. And since I’m of the belief that Kate is faking her accusation against Jeanette as retaliation for her stealing her friends and boyfriend (something Kate has every right to be mad about! She was kidnapped!), I have to know where she got Jeanette’s necklace. Did she buy a duplicate, or is something else shady going on? I think we’ll also, eventually, have to learn how Kate actually got kidnapped by Martin — I hate to say I hope we do, but every time they interact ahead of that, from Martin taking Kate home that night she gets drunk to Martin getting Kate to play his game at the carnival, sends my anxiety through the roof, like it could be the moment it happens. (I get, of course, that this is part of the show’s goal here, and it’s working! One of the strong points of Cruel Summer has been its depiction of Martin’s grooming as not just gross, but almost violent. Watching Kate fall under his spell at the end of episode five was just painful.)

I could see the show ending right as Jeanette and Kate go to trial, and saving that for season two, perhaps. (Which, you’re right, is an inevitability given that the series is a multi-platform monster for Freeform and Hulu.) Or maybe there’s some big bombshell down the road that gets the trial called off? Who the hell knows, at this point? I mentioned that I’m on Jeanette’s side when it comes down to Kate’s big accusation — I’m left thinking that’s what Kate hasn’t been telling the truth about, and that now, she’s seen it snowball into something beyond her control.

To close out, what’s your final case for Kate’s side of things? And do you have any other possibly outlandish theories about the show?

BC: Alright, I’m Babe Ruth swinging for the fence with this one: I think Kate’s big untruth is … that this is a Gone Girl scenario and she faked the whole thing. That her basement scenes are unreliable narration. That Martin Harris, the new school employee who allegedly locked her down there (played with just the right amount of charm and creep by Blake Lee, who eagle-eyed Parks and Recreation fans will remember as one of April’s boyfriends from her throuple) was either in on the plan or a pawn in her game. And that this is her way of reclaiming her life after having it planned out for her by the not-so-perfect mother she’s grown to hate.

The odds of that being true are probably slim to none, but a boy can dream. In all honesty, I bet she’s not being truthful about something trivial that the show is hyping up anyway — the necklace, maybe? Either way, my final case for Kate is that Olivia Holt’s doing some top-shelf acting, essentially juggling three performances beautifully and making a compelling argument for all my sympathies falling with her, no matter how much I stan Jeanette’s choppy mullet-bob in the lawsuit timeline. Watching Jeanette turn on a dime at the town fair, leaving her lovable, nerdy date behind … I don’t know, Justin, I just don’t trust someone willing to sell her soul to the cool kids for a seat at the table.

But I’m excited to be proven wrong, and even excited at the possibility I may come out of this Team Jeanette — that’s the power of Cruel Summer’s smart, propulsive, parceled out storytelling. I’m enjoying taking my time with this week by week. I appreciate the slow-building fandom, as more and more of my friends discover the show (if I have one qualm, it’s that this feels like the perfect June-August run, but I digress). With five episodes left in the season, I can comfortably say I’ll feel glad I watched this thing no matter how it turns out, and that’s just not always the case anymore.

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What’s Going on With Cruel Summer?