Summer Lovin’, It’s Finally Near
Cruel Summer Has Announced Its Second Season, I’ll Tell You More
One of the great joys of Peak TV has been that every so often you discover a gem in the place you’d least expect to find it. Sometimes people love it, sometimes you’re one of the few. But it’s always special when it happens.
The first series I remember truly thinking this way about was Showtime’s Brotherhood, a drama set in Rhode Island, about the Caffee family, Michael, a gangster and Tommy, a state politician and how their world’s kept colliding. My first true exposure to Jason Isaacs and Jason Clarke, it was a small masterpiece that managed to survive for three seasons even though I may very well have been the only person who watched every episode. Not long after that, Showtime started to produce more popular Peak TV series — Weeds and Dexter came along not long after — but I was there at the start, and Brotherhood holds a special place for me.
I have found many of these series in my years of TV watching, some have survived against the odds (Parenthood is the most striking example of this) some were doomed by outside factors (Pushing Daisies was irrevocably damaged by the 2007–2008 writers strike) and some of them showed up in places you never expect them to (MTV produced two gems of original series Awkward. and Faking It, both of which I suspect were cancelled before they could get a proper ending) With the narrowing of the television universe over the last few years, such gems have become harder to find and have less chance of surviving than before. That does not mean they still haven’t come.
Last April Freeform debuted a series that I now realize was the first genuinely great series of the 2020s: Cruel Summer. I spent much of 2021 understandably raving about it to my loyal readers, but in case you have not found it yet, let me give you some of the details.
Set in a small town in Texas, in the summers of 1994, 1995 and 1996, the series followed the arcs of two teenage girls: Jeanette Turner, who started out as a nerdy kid on the outside, and Kate Wallis, the girl everyone in town wanted to be — including Jeanette. In 1994, we followed them both through their paths in life, rarely intersecting. In 1995, Kate had been missing for more than a year, and Jeanette had become the town’s new girl who had everything — including Jeanette’s old boyfriend. Then Kate was discovered…and somehow Jeanette was surprised she wasn’t dead. In 1996, Jeanette had been ostracized both by her town and become a nationwide exile because Kate had accused her on national TV of knowing that she had been abducted — and not telling anyone.
Throughout the season, we routinely and easily went through all three timelines. Chiara Aurelia and Olivia Holt as Jeanette and Kate, respectively, gave two of the most magnificent performances in all of 2021. Cruel Summer went out of its way to explore every aspect of both girl’s lives, showing that Kate’s was never as perfect as it seemed and that Jeanette had more problems than she showed to her friends. We saw the ripple effects in both girl’s life in each year, most notably in the lives of the teenagers around them who were affected. This was most clearly shown in the life of Mallory, an outcast punk who was Jeanette’s closest friend in 1994, estranged from her in 1995, and Kate’s closest friend in 1996. We saw the Turner marriage self-destruct and the problems with the Wallis family become more of a false front then it already was. We saw hints of relationships that were complicated, including the budding gay romance of two friends of both people and the complicated relationship between Kate and Jeanette’s older siblings. And slowly we unraveled the mystery of Kate’s relationship with Martin Harris, the substitute teacher who was accused of abducting her and holding her prisoner for a year — but whose relationship with Kate was far more complicated than even she was willing to reveal to herself. All of this was done, I should add, with perfect attention to detail of the 1990s, the hair and makeup department making it very clear that the viewer would never have problem telling us when we were, and the masterful decision to have the two leads of the series almost never in the same scene in an episode until the very end of the show.
How the series ended I will leave for the viewer to find out. (You can currently find it streaming on Hulu, and I strongly advise you to make time.) All I will say is that it was dramatically powerful, incredibly moving, romantically satisfying — and gave you one last kick in the teeth at the end.
Cruel Summer is, according to Freeform, the highest rated series in the network’s history. Even given how well it was received at the time, because it premiered on a network known more for essentially teen and twenties programming, I don’t think a lot of people were willing to give it the respect it deserved — I remember reading a few columns referring to it as ‘the best guilty pleasure of 2021’. I may very well have the only critic willing to call it flat out a masterpiece, saying that the series and the leads should receive Emmy nominations. At least some of my fellow critics were willing to meet me on this more than halfway. I have spent many articles in the past year raving about just how much I loved the newly founded Hollywood Critics Associations awards for TV, and while I thought their inaugural set of nominations in 2021 were practically perfect, what cemented my faith in them was that they nominated Cruel Summer for Best Cable Drama and gave Best Actress nominations to Aurelia and Holt. Not in my wildest dreams did I dare believe it could win in a field that included Pose, Yellowstone and Perry Mason, so when they announced that it was Best Drama, I’m pretty sure my feet left the floor of my apartment. The Critics Choice were not willing to go that far (to be fair, by the point Squid Game, Succession and Yellowjackets had premiered) but they were at least willing to nominate Aurelia for Best Actress in a Drama. I had no problem naming Cruel Summer the best series of 2021, a decision I will stand by even for those of you who are adamant defenders of the Roy and the Dutton clans.
I was happy to learn way back in August of 2021 that Cruel Summer was renewed for a second season. My only caveat was how the writers planned to deal with a new season: would they try to handle the loose ends that were still their from Season 1 or would they move on to another story altogether? A few weeks ago, the details were finally announced and it seems the writers have chosen the latter option.
From the few details the writers and Freeform are willing to reveal — and obviously the fewer we get, the better — the story will shift to the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the new millennium. It will take place in the summers of 1999, 2000 and 2001, and deal with the consequences of a love triangle that unfolds that year.
As disappointed as I am to leave the story of Jeanette and Kate behind, I can’t say I’m either surprised as well as the tiniest bit relieved. Though I wasn’t among them, many fans were painfully disappointed by the second season of Big Little Lies, I’ve expressed my problems with Your Honor getting a second season, and I’m very trepidatious about the proposed second season of Nine Perfect Strangers. There has always been less of a measure of disappointment for the anthology series than a hit series after a first installment, and Peak TV has more than proven it can be very good at this. FX has done a masterful job of this with American Horror Story (in fan’s opinions) and with Fargo (in mine) and while there have been revelation in later seasons that the stories were taking place in a shared universe, the characters have been allowed to different arcs. It does not always work (True Detective never quite got popular imagination after the disappointment of Season 2) but far more often than not (particularly in the case of the masterpiece American Crime) it can bring us television best moments.
I’m not going to lie: part of the reason I’m happy for this decision is because its easier to break into the anthology and limited series part of the Emmys that it has been for Drama. In my hearts, I knew Cruel Summer didn’t have a chance in hell of getting Emmy nominations, even if the Academy wasn’t inclined to follow its pattern of recognizing series that even fans knew didn’t deserve it (cough, Handmaid’s Tale Season 4). The anthology series in 2021 was a strong group; Wandavision, The Queen’s Gambit, I May Destroy You and Mare of Easttown was a very strong field, and I was disappointed that series like Fargo, The Good Lord Bird couldn’t crack it and Undoing and Small Axe were underrepresented — but it would have been an easier case for Cruel Summer had it been. It has been a tough field for awhile (as I’ve stated on multiple occasions) but it is a smaller one than dramas are.
In either case, I’m eagerly anticipating the return of Cruel Summer maybe, later this summer. Interesting side note: Season 1 had a perfect note of what it was like to grow up in the early 1990s when it came to music and the sound of a modem. I wonder what it will be like to view this world from summer to summer, in a world where no one knows about the War on Terror and the greatest threat we genuinely thought we’d face with the new millennium was Y2K. I guess it really was a simpler time…though I’m pretty sure these characters won’t be having one. But who knows? Maybe one of the characters will casually mention The Sopranos or The West Wing, the first signs of the revolution that has led to gems like this in the first place.