Chiara Aurelia and Olivia Holt star in Cruel Summer, Freeform's time-hopping thriller about two very different '90s teens.

By Kristen Baldwin
April 13, 2021 at 08:30 AM EDT

Cruel Summer (TV Series)

Multiple timelines are now pervasive in television, so what a shock when a new show does it well. While Freeform's Cruel Summer spans three summers in the early 1990s, creator Bert V. Royal (Easy A) presents a twisty, suspenseful thriller by using the concept to illuminate the characters — not the other way around.

Summer (premiering April 20 at 9 p.m.) is the story two teen girls in the small town of Skylin, Texas. In June of 1993, Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) is shy and dorky-sweet, while Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) is popular and beautiful, a golden girl with cascading blond hair to match. They have little in common… until Kate goes missing. By the summer of '94, Jeanette is all glowed up and hanging with Kate's old boyfriend, Jamie (Froy Gutierrez) — a reversal of fortune that reverses itself when she's accused of being connected to Kate's ordeal. One year later, Jeanette is a national pariah with nothing to lose, so she decides to go after the Wallis family publicly. Every episode of Cruel Summer follows one day in all three timelines, and each one is told from either Kate or Jeanette's point of view.

Cruel Summer
Chiara Aurelia and Froy Gutierrez in 'Cruel Summer'
| Credit: Bill Matlock/Freeform

If it all sounds horribly overcomplicated, that's on me. Some dramas wield their time-jumps like a weapon of disorientation, but Cruel Summer actually wants the viewer to follow along. The episodes hop nimbly between the years, matching shots and situations as alliances shift, clues are revealed, and memories emerge. Initial suspicion falls on Jeanette — is she a good girl falsely accused or a calculating liar? — but Kate's evolution from prom queen to trauma-hardened rebel raises its own questions. And both girls are influenced, for good and ill, by their status-obsessed mothers: Cindy Turner (Sarah Drew) seeks to relive her high school glory days through her daughter, while Joy Wallis (Andrea Anders) expects Kate to conform to the family's pillars-of-the-community image. Even before Kate's disappearance, Joy has nothing but contempt for Cindy. "It's like she wants to be me," she sniffs. "It's creepy."

Cruel Summer
Andrea Anders and Olivia Holt in 'Cruel Summer'
| Credit: Bill Matlock/Freeform

Sklyin, like most sleepy TV towns, runs on gossip and secrets. Royal exploits this device effectively for each of his protagonists, propelling the mystery forward by drawing our sympathies from Kate to Jeanette and back again. (As a professional TV watcher, I was humbled by how often Summer faked me out in the four episodes Freeform made available.) It's a lot to put on two young actresses, but Aurelia and Holt embody their slippery characters with unwavering assurance through every phase of the narrative. (Aurelia's transformation from kid to bitter creep is especially striking.) Anders, last seen as Ted Lasso's sad-eyed soon-to-be-ex, brings an extravagant energy to Joy, the type of big-haired Southern battle-ax every soapy drama should have.   

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. Grade: B+

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Cruel Summer (TV Series)

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