This Summer Truly Is Cruel
Freeform Takes On The Crime Procedural With A Refreshing Twist
I have often used this column to rave about some of the more astonishing series that have come out of the basic cable network Freeform. I have been huge boosters of grown-ish and The Bold Type and though my viewing has been inconsistent, I have been impressed by the nature of The Fosters spinoff Good Trouble and the impressive comedy Everything’s Going to Be Okay. These series are often superb at portraying the modern world and all of this generation trying to find their place in it. Which is it was probably the last possible location I would expect for a crime procedural, much less one set in the 1990s.
Yet I’ve just come from watching the first two episodes of Cruel Summer, a show so dark and mesmerizing it doesn’t seem to come from the same planet. And yet there are twists to it that make this series something you definitely wouldn’t expect from network TV or streaming.
The series opens over June 21 in 1993, 1994 and 1995. It’s the birthday of Jeanette Turner. In 1993, she appears to be a fifteen year old nerd with braces and pigtails and very cheerful being greeting by her family. In 1994, all of those are gone and her handsome boyfriend is in her room, kissing her passionately. In 1995, there’s no light and her father orders her to get out of bed. Each time, the scene ends with the words: “Happy birthday, Jeanette Turner” with intonations that reveal layers that we don’t yet comprehend.
In 1993, Jeanette is a typical fifteen year old, singing with her two fellow misfit friends and in awe of Katie Wallis, the most popular girl in school. In 1994, she has somehow taken over Katie’s life — her friends are following her, she’s just lost her virginity to Katie’s boyfriend, and her old friends have been discarded. Katie has disappeared and no one seems to have noticed.
By now, we are so ingrained to the way to procedural works and by the scenes in 1995 indicating something very dark has happened that we expect the pilot to end with the news that Katie was murdered and Jeanette was responsible. Indeed, when a friend comes in with news about Katie, Jeanette seems to know too much and expects that she’s dead. Only she’s not. She’s alive. And the crime that we find out Jeanette has been accused of seems so much more despicable than just murder.
I’m not sure what I expected from episode 2, but I was stunned by what lay ahead. Cruel Summer now takes a look at the life of Katie from 1993, 1994 and 1995. In 1993, she seems the perfect girl with the perfect family and boyfriend — but her mother seems to be something of an arrogant southern belle. (The series is set in the fictional town of Skylin in Texas.) In 1994, she’s a few days removed from being rescued and seems angry at everyone’s attempt to bring things back to normal. And in 1995, she’s in a traumatic spiral that will not be helped when she learns that Jeanette is suing Katie’s family for defamation. You see, Katie has accused Jeanette of seeing her while she was kidnapped and did nothing.
Cruel Summer is radically different from any mystery story I’ve seen in a very long time mainly because the horror of the crime plays second nature to the interplay between the people, especially the teenagers in Skylin. The crime is horrific — Katie was held prisoner by a man who was the future vice principal of the town high school — but we don’t seem to be quire involved in the details of that as everything else. The shifting between time periods is done so subtly that in often comes in a cut yet you have no problem knowing what year you’re in. And there are so many secrets that both families seem to have that are hinted and become laid bare as time goes by. Perhaps the most horrific is the fact that Jamie, the boyfriend Katie has and Jeanette gets is abusive — in both cases, he has clearly hit people and in the future is utterly unapologetic about it. And the series goes out of its way to make sure that neither victim nor accused is entirely perfect — Jeanette does seem to know too much; Katie does seem to have a cruel aspect. In most procedurals, you want to know who did it. In Cruel Summer, we need to know what happened when. That’s something that far too many of HBO and British procedurals don’t seem interested in at all. Special credit must be given to Chiara Aurelia as Jeanette and Olivia Holt as Kate. Both are utterly believable in whatever time period they inhabit and they have to change moods frequently.
I’m not entirely surprised that Jessica Biel, the lead and executive producer of The Sinner the USA series that focuses on why tragedy happens rather than who caused it, is one of the driving forces behind this series. The Sinner is brilliant when it comes to showing just how much wreckage is left behind in the aftermath of a crime, something most procedurals don’t even try to handle. Cruel Summer actually expands on that theme, showing that the wreckage can spread beyond even the families and friends of those involved. The media has pounced on this story in the way it did the Trial of the Century, only this time it’s harder to tell who the real victims are. This series doesn’t have the cast or draw of Mare of Easttown, but its already far more compelling.
Note: I don’t know if this will draw more viewers or not, but the series is also spot on when it comes to all the images of the 1990s. It opens with the sound of a dial up modem, types its forward on a 80s computer, and everybody is watching old videotapes of the news coverage. The 1990s are now effectively a period piece? Man, I feel old.
My Score: 4.5 stars.