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Cruel Summer's Convoluted Format Has Become a Hollow Gimmick in Season 2

The show's three-timeline structure is weighing down its many mysteries.
  • Sadie Stanley and Lexi Underwood in Cruel Summer Season 2 (Photos: Freeform/Ricardo Hubbs)
    Sadie Stanley and Lexi Underwood in Cruel Summer Season 2 (Photos: Freeform/Ricardo Hubbs)

    [Editor's Note: This post contains spoilers for Cruel Summer Season 2.]

    Multiple timelines have become unavoidable on TV, but few shows put their time-hopping structure to use quite like the first season of Cruel Summer. Set across three years — 1993, 1994, and 1995 — the Freeform drama followed the interconnected journeys of Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) and Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) as it worked to answer one burning question: Did Jeanette know Kate was kidnapped by assistant principal Martin Harris (Blake Lee) and imprisoned in his basement?

    The accusation changed the lives of both girls, and their resulting physical and emotional transformations became apparent in the later timelines. 1993 Jeanette was an awkward teen with braces and frizzy hair, but one year later, she had replaced Kate as the most popular girl in school; by the summer of 1995, Jeanette cut her hair short and adopted a uniform of dark colors to reflect her status as town outcast and media villain. As Kate, once the bubbly girl next door, processed her traumatic experience, she also embraced a darker look, ditching her bright dresses for loose-fitting flannels and heavy eye makeup. Cruel Summer followed suit: The color drained out of the show with each passing year, a visual shift that helped distinguish between the timelines and mirrored the girls' mindset.

    Cruel Summer's intricate structure quickly became a cornerstone of its identity, so it's no surprise that when Freeform renewed the show and anthologized it, the triplicate format carried over to Season 2, which shifts the story from Skylin, Texas to the idyllic Chatham, Washington. Set just a few years after the events of Season 1, but still in the early internet, pre-social media era, the second season introduces a new cast of characters and mystery: On the eve of Y2K, best friends Megan (Sadie Stanley) and Luke (Griffin Gluck) welcome an enigmatic newcomer, Isabella (Lexi Underwood), into the fold. Within a year, Luke is found dead, and Megan and Isabella, now rivals, have become the prime suspects.

    But rather than use its three-timeline structure to incrementally reveal the circumstances surrounding Luke's death, Season 2 — which was plagued by showrunner changes during the development process — jumps from one period to the next without rhyme or reason, revealing precious little about the central mystery or the characters caught up in it. Seven episodes in, viewers know hardly anything about Isabella or her past, Luke's murder, Megan and Isabella's role in his death, or the sex tape introduced in the premiere, among the many other puzzles posed by the season.

    Considering how much the first season took on — including topics like grooming and the demonization of women by 1990s media and culture — the biggest surprise of Cruel Summer Season 2 is how small it feels. It's not just that this season shortens the period between its timelines, with episodes taking place on consecutive days in July 1999, December 1999, and July 2000, though it certainly doesn't help, as this decision compresses the drama and reduces the believability of certain plotlines. High school moves quickly and often feels life or death, but it's implausible that the sex tape scandal would be resolved in just a few days.

    The more pressing issue is that Luke's murder and the questions around it don't offer enough intrigue to power three timelines. The details are fairly straightforward: Luke, the son of Chatham's most successful developer, disappeared on New Year's Eve and washes up in the town's marina six months later, at which point Isabella and Megan agree to "get [their] stories straight" about that night. It's since been revealed that Luke and Isabella dated briefly when she first came to town, but Isabella got out of the way when she realized Megan had feelings for him. Megan is convinced her boyfriend is a good guy, but in Episode 7, "It's the End of the World," she overhears Luke bragging about two-timing her with Isabella, and it becomes clear that he's just as entitled as his powerful father (Paul Adelstein) and repugnant brother (Braeden De La Garza).

    Cruel Summer Season 2 takes seven episodes to get to a point that can be summarized in less than 125 words, an unfortunate reality that's a direct result of the show's timeline-hopping. The most important action (really, the only action) occurs in the December timeline, but right when it seems like the drama will finally offer some answers, viewers are yanked back to the brightly-lit summer of 1999, when the trio's biggest concerns are hosting an epic birthday party for Luke or celebrating "Christmas in July."

    The repeated flash-forwards to 2000 are equally frustrating, as Sheriff Myer's (Sean Blakemore) investigation into Luke's murder has yet to result in any real charges. (In one of many red herrings, Megan is arrested... for making fake IDs the year prior.) It's not until Episode 5, "All I Want for Christmas," that something of note finally happens in the summer timelines: In 1999, Isabella is visited by the brother (Olly Sholotan) of her former best friend, Lisa, dredging up questions about her life before arriving in Chatham; one year later, Megan discovers that Lisa died under mysterious circumstances eerily similar to Luke.

    Season 2's deliberately slow pacing presents an opportunity to spend more time with Megan, Isabella, and Luke, but rather than delve further into their psyches, showrunner Elle Triedman doubles down on plot. As if Luke's murder, the sex tape, and Isabella's grim history weren't enough, the later timelines introduce secondary mysteries, including Megan's relationship with disaffected technology wizard Ned (Ben Cotton), who hires her to update the coding in his home security system, and her unplanned pregnancy.

    Though these storylines propel the plot forward — Megan and Ned's business arrangement creates friction with Luke, and the men get physical in a parking lot the day of his disappearance — that progress only throws the stalled main narrative into sharp relief. The ancillary threads also come at the expense of necessary character development, leaving viewers to wonder why the teens are behaving this way and what their true motivations are, things that should be abundantly clear with just a few episodes left in the season.

    And while the show's triple timelines were essential to both the narrative and visual language of Season 1, they lack the same power this season. Megan's appearance changes from one summer to the next — she trades her childlike overalls and ponytail for slicked-back hair and an eyebrow piercing — but Isabella's look remains mostly the same, save for a change in hair texture. Along with Cruel Summer's blue-gray (December 1999) and green-yellow (July 2000) tint, these outward changes make it easier to differentiate between the timelines, but otherwise, they go unremarked upon, as if Megan's rapid transformation from clean-cut, straight-A student to grunge hacktivist isn't at all relevant to this story or the suspicion that hangs over her like a storm cloud.

    Cruel Summer's total reliance on the format laid out in the first season is particularly disappointing because there is an interesting story to be explored here — namely, Isabella's past and the bodies that seem to be piling up as she flits from one country to the next. However, that arc is being weighed down by the requirements and limitations of the show's three-timeline structure. What was once an exciting storytelling device has become an albatross around Cruel Summer's neck, one that may very well sink the Freeform anthology for good.

    New episodes of Cruel Summer Season 2 air Mondays at 10:00 PM ET on Freeform and stream next-day on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Cruel Summer, Freeform, Hulu, Griffin Gluck, Lexi Underwood, Sadie Stanley