Do you remember the mid-90s?
For some of us, the phrase Cruel Summer evokes a catchy song, whether it be one by Bananarama or Taylor Swift, but with their new show of the same name, Freeform unleashes a surprisingly diverting piece of pop confection for our indulgence. Each episode explores one specific date over three consecutive years, in 1993, 1994, and 1995, as Cruel Summer examines the events surrounding the disappearance of a small town Texas teen and its ramifications on her peers and their parents. The gimmick could fall apart fast, but so far, it works.
1993 Jeanette is a mousy middle-class dork, who likes to ride bikes and hit the mall with her equally doofy besties, but she envies the seemingly easy life of Kate, a popular, wealthy girl with a hunky hunky boyfriend and stunning sidekicks. In 1994, Kate’s mysterious disappearance has created a vacuum, and her former companions now belong to surprisingly confident hottie Jeanette, whose old friends resent their relegation to the social dumpster. The world of 1995 changes yet again, as Kate’s return from captivity generates a trauma spiral for everyone.
There’s a lot to keep track of, which makes Cruel Summer a difficult show for the casual viewer to absorb, though it’s certainly juicy enough to merit audience investment for the long haul. And paying close attention seems to be the only way to keep up with the story, not because it’s so complicated, but because the distinctions between years are not always apparent. The timelines are primarily distinguished by Jeanette’s hairstyles and the film’s respective oversaturation, normal exposure, and undersaturation, but it’s not executed smoothly enough to instantly ping your brain the way Soderbergh did in Traffic. On top of that, the main teen males all look like generic variations copied from the same blandfaced mold, so when they’re onscreen, the year is fair game.
Choosing to set the show in the 90s feels random, unless the goal is to visit a world with some internet but limited portable technology, while also providing a convenient reason to blast The Cranberries. As someone the same age as these characters, their mid-90s looks much more Aeropostale than mine, though perhaps they simply inhabit The Town That Grunge Forgot. They live in Texas, and lean heavily into that aspect of their setting, whether it be by referencing Whataburger, generously costuming with cowboy hats, or showcasing guns and meat eaters all around. The best use of backdrop comes when two secretly gay characters drive out of town to a gay bar, and nervously hold hands while they enter. The owners know they’re underage, but let them stay so they can be themselves and feel safe.
It’s surprising moments like this that lend the show some heft and social value. It withholds salacious details about Kate’s abduction, which makes the viewer want them more, thus creating an awareness of our desire to feed on the uncomfortable truths of strangers to satisfy our own curiosity. Though the setup is fantastical, the characters struggle with social pressures and personal agency in a way that feels real. Each episode also muddies the water just enough to generate more questions, and it’s fun to feel like the show as a whole is an unreliable narrator. For now, it’s compelling and fun, but if Cruel Summer continues its clever pattern of subtly diverting every time we think we’ve found a solid path, it will end up being a truly gratifying viewing experience.