Freeform, the teen- and twentysomething-skewing cable channel that once made its mark as the home to Pretty Little Liars, is returning to the teenage criminal intrigue well with Cruel Summer, a whose-story-do-you-believe mystery about two teenage girls in mid-1990s Texas — one of whom goes missing, and the other who's accused of playing a part in her disappearance.
The series was created by Easy A writer Bert V. Royal and executive producer Jessica Biel, who also produced The Sinner, another show that attempted to unravel a mystery surrounding a terrible crime. In Cruel Summer, the crime is the apparent abduction of Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt), a rich, popular teenager who goes missing for almost a year between 1993 and 1994. But Kate isn't our entry point into the show. Instead, we're first introduced to nerdy teen Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia), who's turning 15 on the first day of summer 1993. Jeanette has glasses and curly hair and a very close relationship with her parents and two nerdy best friends, Mallory and Vince (Harley Quinn Smith and Allius Barnes).
This being a post-This Is Us TV drama, we're not only dealing with the summer of 1993 here. The show's first few minutes establish three timelines — the summers of 1993, 1994, and 1995. The foreshadowing for what's going to happen to Jeanette over the course of those three periods is heavy. When we see Jeanette in 1994, her hair is straight, her look is glam, she's hanging out with the popular girls, and she's dating the incredibly hot Jamie (Froy Gutierrez), who we saw dating Kate in 1993. By 1995, things have taken a turn for the dark (as has Jeanette's chopped-short hair, always a telltale sign), as Jeanette's now-frosty dad wakes her to go meet with her lawyer. Something has gone terribly wrong.
Cruel Summer means to challenge viewers’ perceptions as we wade through the mysteries of its plot. Not only is the narrative delivered in triplicate, but the episodes switch off between Jeanette and Kate's perspectives. Episode 2 is told from Kate's POV, and again split between events in 1993 (Kate is popular but troubled), 1994 (Kate has just been rescued from her mystery abduction), and 1995 (Kate's accusations against Jeanette have turned both their lives into a tabloid hell). The crux of the mystery is whether, as Kate attests when she returns in 1994, Jeanette played a role in Kate's abduction. The evidence against Jeanette builds in every episode — after all, she did start dating Kate's boyfriend right after Kate disappeared, turning into the kind of monster popular girl she always saw Kate as. Did this good girl really go bad? On the flip side, Kate is revealed to be harboring a secret herself, suggesting that the story of her abduction isn't all that it seems to be, either.
Cruel Summer does a better job than most at doling out its revelations in a way that keeps us fed with new information that leads to new questions. The people in Jeanette and Kate's lives, each affected by the abduction and the accusations in their own way, all have their own little mysteries to be solved. Why is Jeanette's once happily married dad dating a bartender in 1995? How did Mallory (sporting very Janis-Ian-in-Mean Girls vibes) and Vince (harboring secrets of his own) fall out with Jeanette?
If there's a major flaw with Cruel Summer, it's that Kate and Jeanette as characters aren't as interesting as the show that surrounds them. Kate — and her portrayal by Disney Channel star Holt — takes a while to break out of a pretty dull first few episodes, and while Jeanette is more compelling, the whiplash of cycling through her very different 1993/94/95 personalities keeps us at arm's length from her.
Still, as junky teen mysteries go, it's easy to imagine audiences getting caught up in this series much like they did with Pretty Little Liars. Cruel Summer isn't as given to the wild swings between arch comedy and gaudy horror as PLL, but it is a very hooky mystery. And the music cues meant to signal the imperceptible shifts between its mid-'90s timelines — including episode-length leitmotifs built around Garbage's "Stupid Girl," Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You," and The Cranberries' "Zombie" — will be catnip to any Gen-X/Millennial cusper who wanders past Freeform (or Hulu, where episodes will stream the day after they air on TV).
Cruel Summer may ultimately be little more than an exercise in teenage pulp — an unfolding mystery for viewers to piece together while clocking all the cute boys and '90s music references — but honestly, you could do a lot worse. If the show can keep its tone from getting too bogged down in darkness, it has the potential to be a not-too-guilty pleasure.
Cruel Summer premieres on Freeform April 20th at 9:00 PM ET.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.