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