These days, there’s more pressure than ever to fit things into generational boxes. As millennials dig in their heels and fight the harsh truth that we’re no longer the youngest, most sought-after demographic, there’s a tendency to lash out at what we feel threatened by—namely, people under the age of 25 being talented and successful. But hard as you try to ignore the accomplishments of anyone born after 1996, I regret to inform you that there’s a new teen show on Freeform that your 30-year-old ass needs to be watching.
The show, if you’ve been living under a rock (or like, working full-time and raising a family or something) is called Cruel Summer, and thanks to every entertainment brand being owned by the same four corporations, it’s available on both Freeform and Hulu. So unless your ex just changed their Hulu password and your mom hasn’t had time to look hers up yet, you have no excuse not to watch. The show is nearing the end of its 10-episode first season, which makes now the perfect time to catch up.
So, what is Cruel Summer about? Before I explain, I’ll just say that it’s essentially the Gen Z version of Pretty Little Liars. There are popular girls, wannabe popular girls, ridiculous subplots that serve no purpose, creepy side characters delivering questionable dialogue, and of course, a juicy central mystery fueling the whole operation.
So, the plot: In 1993, a popular girl named Kate goes missing. While she’s gone, an unpopular girl named Jeanette becomes popular, starts hanging out with Kate’s friends, and dating Kate’s boyfriend. In 1994, Kate is rescued, and she claims that Jeanette saw her being held captive and didn’t tell anyone. Oh, and the kidnapper is the vice principal of the high school that both girls attend, naturally. In 1995, Kate and Jeanette are locked in a legal battle while the world around them is more or less going to sh*t. And no, none of that counts as spoilers, because each episode shows us what is happening on the same day of those three different years. It’s a lot to keep track of, but due to some hilarious wigs and over-the-top lighting choices, it’s actually pretty easy to keep track of which year we’re in. On top of the main question of WTF happened with Kate and Jeanette, there are approximately 100 side characters with their own mini-storylines, and the shocking reveals are introduced at a breakneck pace.
It’s been over a decade since Pretty Little Liars premiered (back when Freeform was ABC Family, feel old yet?), and Cruel Summer checks all the same boxes. Yet despite your ~advanced~ age, you don’t need to feel weird about watching it. If you’re a grown adult who can’t understand why you relate to Olivia Rodrigo so much, wait until you’re five Reddit threads deep about this objectively dumb show where each plot twist makes less sense than the one before. Sure, the main characters are in high school, but that didn’t stop you from watching Euphoria, did it? (But actually, if you haven’t seen Euphoria, go watch that—it’s way better than this nonsense.) You may not want to adopt the go-to Gen Z haircuts or styles of denim, but pretending your life is over because you enjoy their music or TV shows is just annoying.
Even as someone who enjoys critiquing a lot of the media I consume, I have to admit that sometimes it’s refreshing to watch something that isn’t really even trying to be good. For more than a decade now, we’ve been in an era of “prestige TV,” where every network and streaming service is throwing their weight behind whatever A-list project they think will inspire think-pieces and win big during award season. But as much as I appreciate the Mare of Easttowns and The Undoings of the world, we also need the Cruel Summers. Those shows have Oscar-winning actresses. This one has Olivia Holt, who’s best known for previous starring roles on Disney Channel and Freeform. Those shows have deeply layered explorations of the human soul, this one tackles the age-old question—does it count as cheating if you date someone new while your girlfriend is kidnapped? The best part about Cruel Summer isn’t the writing or the acting, and it’s DEFINITELY not the wig department; it’s the entertainment factor of watching a messy story being told in an equally messy way.
Image: Freeform/Bill Matlock
Every single day I wake up, open Instagram before my eyelids are even operating at full functionality, and am cursed to find yet another Reel of a millennial in tie-dye sweatpants comparing the TikTok famous dance moves for “Savage” to the routine from N*Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” to demonstrate just how different teens are now than they were back in the early 2000s. It’s not much, but it’s honest work.
While I understand that those who were forced to face their middle school years armed with nothing more than a chunky layer of Maybelline’s Dream Matte Mousse foundation feel they are entitled to compensation, I am begging you to stop taking your millennial anger out on choreography. I’m pleased to share that there’s a new place to direct that rage, and no, it’s not at Olivia Rodrigo for committing the unforgivable crime of *checks notes* writing a complete banger of an album too many years after you graduated high school. Let me introduce you to a show called Cruel Summer.
Cruel Summer is Freeform’s latest teen thriller. Produced by Jessica Biel, it’s centered on the mystery a fictional small town in Texas faces when Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt), the most popular girl in school goes missing, and Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia), your stereotypical “just got her braces off” baddie, seemingly takes her place. Despite the fact that this show is oddly addictive, you need to pay attention to it because Cruel Summer is coming for the sanctity of the decade you can’t stop reviving.
Set across the years 1993, 1994, and 1995, Cruel Summer is about as authentically ‘90s as the faux-vintage Friends merchandise that has been licensed to every major retailer as of late. And the fact that this ‘90s drama is extremely un-’90s is even glaringly obvious to me, a person who had not yet lost a single baby tooth by the turn of the millennium. Sure, each episode begins with a note explicitly telling you that the episode takes place on a specific date in the years 1993, 1994, and 1995… but that’s about as much effort as went into it. Whereas recent throwback shows like Stranger Things, Pen15, and Derry Girls clearly went to painstaking lengths to ensure not a single gel pen or rollerblade would expose the fact that the series was actually created after the dawn of the iPhone, Cruel Summer basically just crimped a few strands of hair and called it a day. With a soundtrack full of covers of songs that are widely accepted as ‘90s classics, but weren’t necessarily released in the years in which the scenes takes place (shout-out to “Wonderwall,” which came out in 1995 but appeared in a scene set in 1993), it’s seems like Cruel Summer’s research budget pales in comparison to what the average individual shelled out for unused streaming subscriptions to boutique fitness cults companies throughout the pandemic.
The music could maybe be overlooked (how many of us know the exact year a song came out without having to Google it), but there are even more glaring issues. As Reddit users have pointed out, the use of technology is inconsistent with what high schoolers would have experienced during the decade. Unlike what we see on the show, teens didn’t really have their own computers in their bedrooms (the computer room erasure…) and weren’t yet fully obsessed with checking email or instant messaging. FYI, AIM didn’t roll out until 1997, and even though there were earlier instant messaging platforms, the dramatic away messages are really what encapsulated the era of virtual chat.
It’s just pretty bizarre that a show whose entire personality rests on taking place in the early ‘90s does such a bad job of… taking place in the early ‘90s. The home interiors are suspiciously neutral; I simply refuse to believe that any kid who had their own bathroom in 1993 didn’t also have a fish-themed shower curtain. How am I supposed to be transported back to the past if the bathroom doesn’t look like something an independently wealthy young couple on Fixer Upper would immediately gut? I simply cannot. I’d believe you if you told me that the wardrobe department solely sourced everything from Charlotte Russe’s 2017 collection—you know, that year in which we all wore clothes covered in checkered prints and embroidered roses. A few black velvet chokers and oversized flannels does not a genuine vintage outfit make!
Besides the dodgy attempt at creating a period drama, there are also plenty of other things that simply make no sense in Cruel Summer. Admittedly, my knowledge of Texas stops at The Real Housewives of Dallas and Sandy Cheeks from Spongebob Squarepants, but it does seem peculiar that only like, one character (Kate’s mother) bothers to speak with a Southern twang. I won’t throw any major spoilers at you, but there are also some pretty huge red flags in regards to the way the media covers a court case that are used to drive plot but are just straight-up illegal and would never happen IRL… outside of maybe Fox News, that is.
With that said, Cruel Summer is still definitely worth a watch if you’re into dramatic thrillers full of plot twists—just don’t expect it to accurately reflect your childhood or adolescence. If you’re looking for epic Levis and iconic Calvin Klein dresses, just rewatch Friends or Full House. But if you’re down for a cheesy mess that’s inexplicably binge-worthy, Cruel Summer is where it’s at.
Image: Freeform/Bill Matlock (2)