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"Cruel Summer" could be the next hit teen drama

The new Freeform series brings its own dark twist to the genre

<p>Starring Olivia Holt as Kate Wallis, "Cruel Summer" transports viewers to a Texas town grappling with its haunting past, present and future.</p>

Starring Olivia Holt as Kate Wallis, "Cruel Summer" transports viewers to a Texas town grappling with its haunting past, present and future.

In a two-episode series premiere event, Freeform debuted “Cruel Summer,” just in time for the new show to become the teen drama of the season. Starring Chiara Aurelia as Jeanette Turner and Olivia Holt as Kate Wallis, the show transports viewers to a Texas town grappling with its haunting past, present and future.

After a trigger warning for domestic violence, “Cruel Summer” begins with a message on a black screen — “The events that are about to unfold take place approximately on June 21st, 1993, 1994 and 1995.” Jumping between timelines, it is soon revealed that the town’s teenage golden girl Kate Wallis has been abducted.

In the meantime, however, the once-awkward Jeanette Turner has seemingly stepped into Kate’s life — until June 21, 1995, when Jeanette has suddenly become the most hated teenager in the country. Each episode leaves viewers with more clues to slowly piece together the puzzle. What really happened to Kate? And did Jeannete have anything to do with it?

The transition between the timeline is seamless, with subtle images connecting moments that are years apart. The contrasts between the three different eras of Jeanette — the awkward, innocent 15-year old, the sleek, popular 16-year old and the dark, scarred 17-year-old — is exacerbated by the production's lighting and filters. The subtle cheery, colorful filter for 1993 is juxtaposed with the dark lighting of 1995. This drastic contrast between the versions of Jeanette is the driving force behind initial intrigue in the pilot, and could lend itself to an interesting character study once more clues are revealed. 

While Jeanette is not the most sympathetic character, this impulsive to dislike her character is likely the point. This minor concern — is Jeanette likeable enough to keep viewers hooked? — is remedied by the second episode, when the show takes Kate’s point of view. Though perhaps the likeability issue is not an issue at all. What she sometimes lacks in charm — from her cringe-inducing interactions at 15 to her suspicious behavior later on — is made up for by her seeds of relatability and the mystery of how her life has gone so awry. 

It’s this element of mystery that is most compelling in the show. Is Jeanette innocent or guilty? How did she so seamlessly morph from a painfully awkward girl to a sleek Kate copycat? Aside from losing her braces and glasses, of course. The nature of the time-hopping format lends itself naturally to planting these suspicions and confusions. Thankfully, enough subtle clues are revealed in the first two episodes to satisfy intrigue as new questions arise with each hint. 

On a lighter note, the show brings old fashioned ‘90s charm to 2021, which is particularly appealing in the midst of a pandemic that forces technology to the forefront. Throughout the premiere episodes, the soundtrack delivers with '90s hits such as “Free Your Mind” throughout. Paired with the costuming choices — the girls’ aerobic class outfits most of all — and chunky computer technology, there’s enough detail to successfully set the scene of three decades past.

“Cruel Summer” has all the makings of a new hit teen drama — the popular girl, the wannabe who becomes the popular girl, a central traumatic event, a mystery and legal issues. However, unlike its predecessors, “Cruel Summer” is eerie in its realism. At least in its first two episodes, it has successfully avoided the trap of over-the-top logical fallacies that define shows like “Pretty Little Liars.” The drama is still fascinating, but the lack of glaring plot holes and the serious topic of abduction give the show a somber, sophisticated edge.

Reminiscent of the popular teen mystery dramas of the 2010s, “Cruel Summer” is worth the watch for both fans of the genre and the unfamiliar alike. It’s the perfect upgrade for anyone who watched “Riverdale'' before it went off the rails.

New episodes of "Cruel Summer" air Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on Freeform and stream the next day on Hulu.