Series Review: Freeform's 'Cruel Summer'


Harley Quinn Smith and Olivia Holt in Cruel Summer c/o Freeform
Harley Quinn Smith and Olivia Holt in Cruel Summer c/o Freeform

By: Twisted Tori


Freeform's CRUEL SUMMER, created by Bert V. Royal, goes back and forth between events that take place in three years: 1993, 1994, and 1995, and tells one of hell of a story with a compelling mystery, great character development, and music to die for.


The series centers around a small Texas town. All is well, until a popular teen named Kate Wallis (Claire Holt) goes missing, and everyone’s world is turned upside down - including Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia). Jeanette is the complete opposite of Kate. Although sweet, she’s awkward and invisible to most of her peers, except for her closest friends, Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) and Vince (Allius Barnes). However, when Kate goes missing, Jeanette takes over Kate’s life, becoming close to her friends, and even dating her boyfriend, Jamie Henson (Froy Gutierrez).


Just as things start to get back to normal, we find out that Kate is no longer missing. She had been kidnapped by the assistant principal, Martin Harris (Blake Lee), who was killed upon her rescue. As expected, Kate is no longer the sweet, charming, and bright-eyed teen girl she once was. Her trauma haunts her, so she decides to speak her truth and tell the whole world that Jeanette knew she was trapped in the house all along, and did nothing.


Harley Quinn Smith, Chiara Aurelia, and Allius Barnes in Cruel Summer c/o Freeform
Harley Quinn Smith, Chiara Aurelia, and Allius Barnes in Cruel Summer c/o Freeform

The word quickly spreads, and Jeanette Turner becomes the most despised person in America. She loses everything she had dreamed of in the blink of an eye. Jeanette denies the claims against her. But who is telling the truth? Did Jeanette truly know Kate was being held hostage? Or is Kate’s trauma and jealousy making her lie?


Each episode gets us a little closer to the truth. CRUEL SUMMER was a phenomenal YA dramatic thriller. It took me a bit to get used to the timeline shifts, but I ended up liking the style, and it really helps set the tone for the sequence of events. Each year came with a different haircut, style, and music change. Any 90’s kid like myself will truly appreciate the soundtrack and familiar fashion. It will take you back to the simpler times of riding bikes with your friends, photo booths at the mall, rollerskating rinks, and good music, like “Dreams” by The Cranberries.


After the first few episodes, there's kind of a Wild Things (1998) vibe. As in Kate, Jeanette, and Martin are all in on it. Now whether there’s any truth to that, you’ll just have to find out by watching. Although this story centers around Kate being abducted, this show is much more than that. To me, this show is about a small town of people who are all disappointed with their lives, and sick of living lies. It's just that some lies are more dangerous than others. They all want something more, and when the opportunity strikes, they take it without thinking about the consequences.


 Andrea Anders and Olivia Holt in Cruel Summer c/o Freeform
Andrea Anders and Olivia Holt in Cruel Summer c/o Freeform

All of the performances throughout this series are fantastic, but the character development was one of the best things about the show. I loved seeing these characters transform into different versions of themselves; some for the better, others for the worse. I honestly could talk about each and every one of them, but I’ll try to focus on the main ones. I think at first, we’re supposed to dislike Kate, despite all the trauma she’s been through, because she was the pretty, rich girl who had it all. But I could see from the get-go how miserable she was. Rich and pretty doesn’t equal happy, and her home life was less than ideal. I loved seeing her fight through everything and find herself, putting aside any flaws she may have. I also loved the relationship that grows between her and Mallory (Smith).

I never once liked Jeanette, though. She had a good life and a loving family, but she so desperately wanted to be someone else. Her character was an awkward wannabe. Innocent or guilty, she took over someone else’s life as if she were the missing puzzle piece. She wanted to be Kate Wallis so much that she became her. That just screams toxic energy to me. I also never really bought her and Jamie’s relationship. I think he loved her, but she never really loved him. She just liked that he was hot and popular, and that meant that she was, too. However, I can’t say many of the other characters on the show are much better than her, except for the wonderful Vince Fuller. He is the most wholesome character on the show, and the best friend to everyone. He truly deserved better, and I just want to make sure he gets the recognition he deserves.


One of my favorite things about CRUEL SUMMER is that it doesn’t flaunt or romanticize underage sex or underage bodies, like many YA series do. Even with the troubling subject matter, the show never pushes those boundaries, and gives us many examples of unhealthy relationships, including grooming. The definition of grooming is when someone builds a relationship, trust, and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit, and abuse them. Martin Harris is the most accurate portrayal of grooming I’ve ever seen in a show or movie. You see him building the relationship with Kate - and others - throughout the show. You see how innocent it all seems as first, but slowly it becomes toxic and damaging for everyone involved.


Allius Barnes in Cruel Summer c/o Freeform
Allius Barnes in Cruel Summer c/o Freeform

CRUEL SUMMER has layers upon layers of twists, and I was happy that it wasn’t as predictable as it looked in the very beginning. I’m still thinking and processing the last two episodes of the series, because there’s so much to unpack. That ending was killer. So many of my questions were answered, but I’m still left wanting to know so much more. It’s one of my new favorite shows, and I definitely will be rewatching it again soon.


It was also recently announced that CRUEL SUMMER was renewed for a second season, but as of yet it's not clear whether it will follow the same characters or be a whole new story. Either way, I can’t wait! Binge the whole first season of CRUEL SUMMER now on Hulu or Freeform!