On the surface, Cruel Summer seems like typical teen TV fare. Jeanette Turner (played by Chiara Aurelia) is a gawky 15-year-old with braces, glasses and not an ounce of what society deems “cool” about her. Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt), on the other hand, is blonde, pretty and popular.
When Kate goes missing, Jeanette begins to blossom and, within a year, is ruling the roost in their small Texas town. She’s best friends with Kate’s old crew, is dating Kate’s boyfriend and has gone through an aesthetic upgrade that makes her look eerily similar to her peer. Is it a puberty-assisted coincidence or, as she’s later accused of, is Jeanette working to a much more calculated and evil plan?
Executive produced by Jessica Biel (The Sinner), this new thriller series might be centred around well-worn tropes but there’s more to it than simply retelling a fable about popularity. Through that easily accessible path, it examines the idea of truth and how it can be warped and moulded to fit a narrative, and how perhaps the most important elements of it are the bits that get left out – whether intentionally or accidentally.
Instead of unfolding chronologically, the action darts between the same day over the course of three years – 1993, 1994, and 1995 – which helps keep things from getting too predictable. It’s easy to follow what year you’re in thanks to the scenes’ drastically contrasting appearance – 1993 is bright and happy, while 1995 is drab and oppressive, its shadows and gloom making you feel heavy just watching it. Scenes from different years melt into each other too, transforming from giddy high school summer to a wretched existence subtly and seamlessly.
In the later years of the story, it feels like everyone is gripped by trauma. Jeanette is now the “most hated person in America” after it’s claimed she knew what had happened to Kate and Aurelia plays her to bitter, downtrodden perfection. Her family are clearly suffering too – first from having their daughter and sister be accused of such a thing, and then having to grapple with the idea that maybe she really did. When news of Kate’s fate breaks in 1994, her family, friends and boyfriend have to come to terms with an unexpected twist in a story they thought they knew the ending to.
While some of the acting in Cruel Summer is so wooden you’ll find yourself cringing, it’s in the darker years – where different sides of the characters begin to reveal themselves – that the cast excels. Even in the lighter times, the story is strong enough to make you stick with it, the slow reveal of key info (over the first three episodes, at least) keeping you guessing who to root for in a tense she said-she said tug-of-war.