And It’s Yet Another Jagged, Fresh Look at What Peak TV Can Do
Last year, when most of America was becoming enthralled by HBO’s Mare of Easttown (an admittedly superb series it took me a while to appreciate) I was riveted by Cruel Summer, Freeform’s magnificent slow-burn mystery that told the story of two teenagers in a small Texas town over three summers, showing how their lives would change forever because of one’s disappearance and how the other was accused of a horrific act of malfeasance.
Few TV critics were greater partisans of it than I was and I was overjoyed when in their first year of existence the HCA would nominate it for Best Cable Drama and give Best Actress nominations to breakout stars Chiara Aurelia and Olivia Holt. Even in my wildest dreams I never thought the show had a chance of winning against Lovecraft Country or Pose, so when it actually won Best Drama, I think my feet left the floor. The HCA did many things right in its first year, but this award alone justified its existence. I had no problem ranking it as the Best Series of 2021 and was overjoyed when it was renewed for a second season.
As I mentioned in a preview, it was probably a better idea for the new showrunners to attempt an anthology format for the series rather than try to continue the action from Season 1. The first incarnation had told a complete story and as we have learned in recent years, when writers attempt to do so with what is initially a limited series, the results can be scattershot at best. (I’m looking at you Your Honor and I’m still hoping that a second season of Mare of Easttown doesn’t come to light.) It has been hard to figure out how fans or critics will react to the second season after a nearly two year gap: the one review I saw on-line was half-hearted even though they didn’t seem to find that there was anything wrong with it. I suspect at the end of the day it is the inevitable result after any hit series returns for a second season: regardless of how brilliant it is , it will always pale in comparison to the first. This has been true to extent even for anthology series: even if the second season of True Detective hadn’t been a trainwreck, the expectations were too high for anything to be a success, and no matter how many awards The Assassination of Gianni Versace one, some will always compare it unfavorably to The People VS. O.J. Simpson.
The second installment of Cruel Summer doesn’t try to duplicate the exact formula that made its first version so brilliant, though on closer inspection the similarities are still there. The action takes place in another small town over three timelines. In Season 1, we visited Skylin over the summers of 1993, 1994, and 1995. Season 2 takes us to the small Washington town of Chatham but condenses it: the first timeline is in the Summer of 1999, the second in December of that year, and the third is in the summer of 2000. It is a period piece as much as Season 1 was, this time relying on the chaos that surrounding the end of the millennium. (Remember the days when we thought that the biggest problem with technology was that it couldn’t deal with resetting all the clocks on computers?) And it deals with the relationship of two teenage girls and how a crime they are involved in impacts their friends and their entire community. Beyond that, there are major differences.
Because in order to fully understand the impact of how Cruel Summer works, I will go into great detail on the action of the first two episodes. (Spoilers ahead.) In the opening we center are attention on Megan, a clearly introverted teenager who only cares about getting into college and getting out of Chatham. She is clearly annoyed that her mother Diane has decided to allow an exchange student to visit. The next shot takes us to December of 1999 where Megan is watching MTV and Isabella rushes in with a big envelope. Megan opens it, learns that she has received a scholarship to the University of Washington and the two of them begin to jump up and down, Megan declare how glad she is Isabella is in her life. The last shot takes place in the Summer of 2000. Megan is now wearing the outfit of a goth and tapping angrily on a computer. A police car shows up at her door, and she jumps out the window.
Over the course of the episode we get various stages of how she inhabits the town and various times. In the summer of 1999, she is clearly in a friendship with Luke, who is part of the wealthiest family in town. In the winter, she and Luke are clearly in love. By the time we get to Summer of 2000, the town looks a lot darker and Megan is nervous about more than what appears to be her illegal hacking. Megan and Isabella are aloof in the Summer of 1999, but after being accepted to college she considers the two of them are now ‘Ride or Die’. She and Luke have a rendezvous at a cabin that night. By the summer of 2000, Isabella is a non-entity and Megan goes to that same cabin trying to clean blood off the floor.
Everything seems to be explained to an extent at the Christmas Party of Luke’s family. By this point Diane, who works at Luke’s company in the summer of 1998, is dating him in the winter. (There’s a real synchronicity to this which I’ll get to when I reveal the cast.) Luke’s father is trying desperately to shore up a business deal which is starting to show problems and he thinks the Christmas party might save it. The grown-ups are dignified at the party; the children are getting very wasted. Finally Luke’s dad starts to show the Christmas movie — except when it starts playing, we see Luke and Isabella having sex. Megan runs out in tears.
The episode ends with a body pulled out of the water, and its Luke’s whose been missing for months. Isabella shows up for the first time in the Summer of 2000 and tells Megan: “We need to get our stories straight.”
At the end of the first episode, the viewer thinks they know the basics of what is going to unfold and why Luke disappeared. Just as in Season 1, the second episode of Season 2 undoes our expectations. This time, the focus is primarily on Isabella, the days after the events in the season premiere. The most telling part of the episode comes when Isabella comes up to see Megan who is watching the sex tape. Megan is worried but not angry — because of what no one saw at the party. The tape shows a threesome between Luke, Isabella — and Megan.
Megan intends to come clean because she doesn’t want Isabella to be shamed by the town, even though this will destroy her chances of a scholarship. Isabella tells her she’ll take the heat. The two of them have a meeting with Luke, who clearly doesn’t want Isabella to be punished — and now the three of them want to know who made the tape.
That part we do get an answer to in the next episode — it’s Luke’s older brother, Brent. This does not come as a surprise to the viewer: by now, we’ve gotten familiar with Brent and he’s pretty much a sexual harassment seminar waiting to happen. When Luke confronts his brother about the tapes (he’s got a collection) Brent says that this will be the highpoint of these girl’s lives when they’re forty and then Luke should be happy this tape was now public. What is not clear is how the tape ended up in the VCR in the first place — Brent did not want to ruin his father.
At this point, it’s very clear that the town considers Isabella a scapegoat for what happened as well as the town whore: at one point a resident tells her that she must have killed Luke to have Megan all to herself. (It’s 2000; homosexuality is nearly as frowned up as sex tapes at this point). But its also increasingly becoming clear that Isabella is keeping secrets of her own. She’s American and has been traveling Europe, but she has not yet made it clear why she ended up in Chatham instead of anywhere else. It’s never been clear why she decided to stay in Chatham after Luke disappeared, and there’s a very good chance she’s been lying about more than that. The police department makes it clear that she’s been kicked out of three schools in three years, and she has the clarity of mind to say she’s not answering any questions without an attorney present. At the end of the Winter of 1999, she seems to reveal to Diane something that is done out of jealousy, and at the end of the summer of 2000, she makes a call to her mother saying: “You were right.”
Perhaps I have made much of this sound dense and confusing, but it never appears that way on the show. You are always certain what timeline you are in, not just because of the difference in the characters clothing and haircuts, but because of the filters that are used in each timeline. The summer of 1999 is shot in bright tones and hues; the winter of 1999 has a blue filter, and the summer of 2000 has a noxious green one, as if to indicate a poison has infiltrated Chatham and will never leave. The town also looks somewhat more decrepit in the last timeline: have the fortunes of the town changed irrevocably because of what has happened at the Christmas Party?
The first season of Cruel Summer worked immensely because none of the actors in the cast where known entities to me. This is not the case in Season 2, and I actually think it works in the series favors because there is a certain familiarity to the actors that resonates more. Megan is played by Sadie Stanley who has had a girl-next-door feel to her in her recurring role on The Goldbergs even as the show declines. Considering that show was also a period piece that means she knows the words for this kind of thing. Isabella plays Lexi Underwood, who I vividly remember as Pearl Warren, the daughter looking for a family in 1990s Ohio and causing irreparable damage in the suburban Richardson family. Luke is played by Griffin Gluck, who played the fresh-faced kid with layers in the Netflix sensations American Vandal and Locke and Key. All of them are used to playing characters who are more than meets the eye.
But the greatest synchronicity comes in the two major parents. Diane is played by KaDee Strickland and Luke’s father by Paul Adelstein. Anyone who has a remote memory of Shondaland knows that in Private Practice Adelstein and Strickland’s character had the longest-running and by far most comforting love story on the series, perhaps in all of Shondaland’s work. There’s a clear familiarity between them in every scene they do, an easy chemistry even when they’re not together (they’ve broken up by the Summer of 2000) and it shows in their work. (Those who know Private Practice well might remember that in the last seasons of the series their characters ending up parents of a child — who was played by Griffin Gluck.)
I have missed Strickland’s presence from television (with a couple of exceptions she has done little acting over the past decade) and there’s a gentleness and warmth in her behavior that Charlotte went out of her way to avoid showing throughout Private Practice. Adelstein has been a presence in TV for awhile but almost always as a villain, which is a shame because his role as Cooper shows just how well he does nice guys. Private Practice is considered the donkey of Shondaland, which may be it’s the only series she’s made that I unabashedly like and Strickland and Adelstein more than demonstrate that their work their was not a one-off.
All of the performances have layers that clearly help them on a show where the viewer’s sympathies for them will be switching every ten minutes. The cast was kept in the dark until the last episode as to who the perpetrator was, and this helps the mood of Cruel Summer immensely: the characters seem genuinely baffled as to why everything is happening, which fits when you consider the actors might very well have been to. There were gaps like this going on throughout Season 1: we thought we understood the major reason for why one of the characters did what she did, but it was not until the penultimate episode that the full depths of what was going on were clear to the viewer — in part because they had not been clear to the character.
It would be easy to call Cruel Summer True Detective for the teenagers set — but that gives too little credit to Cruel Summer, which is clearly a better series right now — and I’d even rank it above the first season of True Detective. At the end of the day, the main thing that series had was the incredible work of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey which carried it over a mystery that in hindsight may not have made much sense. The first season of Cruel Summer had revelatory performances from its two female leads, but because it was happening to them the emotional resonance was far greater than that of a police investigation. And while the Hart and Cohle were the only two characters who had any depth in Season 1, the entire cast had depth and were given background in a way that far transcended the detail that the investigation took place. Both seasons took place in Texas, but they inhabited entirely different worlds and while both were harsh, even in the darkest moments for each character there always seemed to be hope.
It remains to be seen whether the second season of Cruel Summer can match the intensity of the first. I think it would be better served to be judged on its own merits. And to be clear, on its own merits the first two episodes of Season 2 are superb, both from a technical standpoint, performances and written. The series has not tried to cut and paste the old model, though there are certain notes that matter. But it is just as absorbing and fascinating to look at it and marvel at the work. This season takes place in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1990s, which means that it has the aura of Twin Peaks as well. Chatham isn’t as eccentric but there’s clearly that sense of something dark beneath the surface, particularly in the woods and night. To quote a phrase I’m pretty sure the characters in Chatham would know, I don’t know what we’ll find in the second season of Cruel Summer, but I think it will be wondrous and strange.
Note: As I mentioned in an author’s note to my first review of the show, the second season of Cruel Summer also gets all the right notes when it comes to setting the era. Hackers uses floppy discs to share information, the sex tapes are on actual VHS tapes and the music is that of the era. The season premiere shows Megan watching The Spice Girls and they party down to ‘La Vida Loca’. Social media doesn’t exist in this world, but this is a town small enough that you don’t need Twitter for your reputation to be destroyed. Everyone is concerned in the winter about Y2K and the end of the world. People are using camcorders and Polaroids to record everything. The only thing that’s missing is everybody talking about the ‘Hush’ episode of Buffy in the winter of 1999 or the new season of The Sopranos.
My score: 4.5 stars.