"It’s a fascinating concept backed by strong performances, but all the time-jumping is sure to cause whiplash," says Saloni Gajjar of the Jessica Biel-produced series from creator Bert V. Royal. "Cruel Summer takes nonlinear storytelling to an extreme. It’s not exactly confusing (nothing can beat Westworld here, right?), because the show does an effective job distinguishing between time periods with visuals, color themes, and personality changes for almost everyone, especially Jeanette and Kate. It’s still frustrating to see all the plot lines condensed into just one particular day of every summer without spending sufficient time in any of them. The limited focus means limited context for the characters’ actions and dynamics. The back-and-forth is initially entertaining and does build suspense, but four episodes in, the format wears out its welcome."
Cruel Summer distinguishes itself with the limits it puts on its storytelling: "Cruel Summer has set up an intriguing challenge for itself," says Daniel D'Addario. "Each episode of the new Freeform drama series depicts a single day over the course of three years — 1993, 1994 and 1995 — in order to convey the long-tail effects of a kidnapping. It’s both an attention-getting gambit and a limitation: Condensing a story that takes place over two years into three days of action, and finding ways to communicate what happened between the days we see without resorting to pure data-dumps. While it’s sometimes slightly inelegant, Cruel Summer generally manages to pull off that challenge in its first two episodes. That sets the series off to a promising start in part because of the limits producers have imposed on their own storytelling...The show certainly seems to front-load its intrigue, with episodes following first an alleged accomplice in a kidnapping and then its victim. But given the strong bench of characters (among them Harley Quinn Smith and Allius Barnes as Jeanette’s fellow outcasts and Blake Lee as a creepy educator at Jeanette and Kate’s school), it seems likely that the show will continue to complicate itself as it extends its universe further outwards."
Cruel Summer finds a way to weaponize nostalgia: "Cruel Summer piques curiosity on several levels," says Kristen Lopez. "On the surface, Freeform’s marketing has been intense, with trailers and commercials giving just enough intrigue to entice fans — many of whom may not already be regular viewers of the network formerly known as ABC Family, given its common associations with millennial or Disney viewers. But the cable channel’s more recent shows (like Good Trouble and Grown-ish) have developed extensive followings, and there’s no doubt Cruel Summer will attract those same audiences. But there’s another component to Cruel Summer that it’s weaponizing, and that’s nostalgia — though not in the same way Disney+ shows and other streaming series are using it. The new drama isn’t recreating its time period to get fans to point at the screen and say, 'I totally had that!' It’s using the halcyon days of the ’90s to say they were anything but — they weren’t glorious, and there were flaws. We just weren’t talking about them as openly as we are now."
Cruel Summer doesn’t quite deliver on the pleasures it promises: "Many of its surprises are predictable, and the laggard pacing saps some of the dark juiciness implied by the premise," says Inkoo Kang. "(Despite the gravity of Kate’s ordeals, the series keeps the tone relatively light, at least in the first four episodes, by skirting the possibility of sexual assault by her kidnapper.) The early '90s soundtrack choices and tech touchstones are so thudding — beepers, Walkmans, chat rooms — that they feel less like nostalgia trip for the portion of the audience that lived through the decade than exotic artifacts from a bygone era for viewers born after the show’s setting (though that’s fine, given Freeform’s younger demo). Even less thought-through are the allusions to the Clinton years’ tabloid culture, which is undergoing a wider revisit in media and entertainment today and which creator Bert V. Royal seems only half-interested in channeling, let alone exploring."
Cruel Summer uses the concept of multiple timelines to illuminate the characters — not the other way around: "Some dramas wield their time-jumps like a weapon of disorientation, but Cruel Summer actually wants the viewer to follow along," says Kristen Baldwin, adding: "It's somewhat unclear why Cruel Summer is set in the '90s. Perhaps it's simply to avoid the story-scuttling presence of cell phones, or maybe someone just really likes the Cranberries. And the scariest part of getting hooked on any high-concept TV series is the dread that comes with knowing how few shows truly fulfill their potential. For now, Cruel Summer is addictive and fresh — and with any luck, viewers won't get burned."
Cruel Summer is custom-built to be an object of social media obsession: "I had to give up taking notes on Cruel Summer, Freeform’s new 90s-set teen mystery series, about 2,000 words in," says Alexis Gunderson. "For one thing, there was just so much going on, and almost none of it fell into the category of Chill to Share in a Pre-Air Review. More pressingly, though, was the fact that—to make sure I got the tiny details of any one scene right without missing any of the equally important, equally tiny details in the next—I found myself having to hit the pause button basically every 20 seconds. I mean, sure; I cut my TV teeth writing 6,000-word recaps of Pretty Little Liars. But with a full four (out of eight) episodes of Cruel Summer made available to critics for review, it quickly became apparent that such an obsessive approach wasn’t going to be sustainable. That said, the very density that prompted me to get 2,000 words deep in a meticulous kind of madness before changing course is precisely the thing that’s likely to turn Cruel Summer into the internet’s next big generation-spanning hit. Truly, from its complex, triple-layered timeline to its compellingly intimate POV-flipping narrative structure to its viscerally accurate mid-90s details, Cruel Summer is custom-built to be an object of social media obsession."
Chiara Aurelia calls Cruel Summer a huge, twisty, adventurous ride: "You can't really expect anything," she says. "There is a whole slew of twists and turns, and that's the joy of it. There are more mysteries than you might expect, more characters involved than you might see at first, and every detail is like a bunch of breadcrumbs that will lead you to the truth."
How 1990s figures like Monica Lewinsky and Lorena Bobbitt served as inspirations: “We looked to women in the ’90s who kind of got skewered in the media,” says Napolitano. “We looked to Monica Lewinsky or Lorena Bobbitt… they were pure villains in the media. That’s it, one side to the story. With Cruel Summer, we get to live with these actual human beings and learn that the reality is much more of a gray area than just a black-and-white hero/villain story.”