The first season of Cruel Summer was an unexpected hit for Freeform back in 2021 when it became the No. 1 new cable drama among women. The series had a great hook: the story was divided across three years, each visually distinct, following the same characters as their circumstances changed in relation to a central mystery.
In season one, that was the kidnapping of a popular girl. In season two of showrunner Elle Triedman‘s anthology series, the stakes have escalated to murder.
Just like before, the action involves two high school girls: risk-averse, straight A student Megan Landry (Sadie Stanley) and Isabella LaRue (Lexi Underwood), the wealthy daughter of diplomats. The latter girl is essentially an exchange student who comes to stay with Megan and her family – mom Debbie (KaDee Strickland) and younger sister Lily (Jenna Lamb) – for a year in the small Pacific North West tourist town of Chatam.
The earliest of the three timelines is July 1999, when Isabella first arrives on the eve of Ocean Bloom Festival. Almost immediately the girls get off on the wrong foot. Megan has to relinquish her incredibly cool Air Stream camper for the new girl, and Isabella arrives with expensive welcome gifts, which makes poor, proud Megan bristle. Isabella takes every opportunity to talk about her worldly travels and how she is looking forward to spending time in a small town, which she doesn’t realize sounds both condescending and a little disingenuous.
While the color scheme for July 99 is warm yellows and oranges, the Christmas-set Winter 1999 time period is bathed in cool blues and greys. The friendship that eventually developed over the Summer has blossomed into a “ride or die” sisterhood, though there’s tension and distrust brewing over a sex tape featuring one of the girls and Luke (Griffin Gluck), a local boy who is currently dating Megan, but dated Isabella back in summer.
Luke also happens to be the son of the most powerful man in town, Steve Chambers (Paul Adelstein), who regularly berates Luke and his older brother Brent (Braeden De La Garza) about the importance of family, appearances, and reputation above all else. The fact that both girls are involved with Luke while Debbie is Steve’s employee (and – in the Winter scenes – his girlfriend) makes everything more complicated.
The final timeline, lit in sickly greens, is set six months later in Summer 2000 when a body is pulled from the lake. The identity of the corpse isn’t revealed until the closing moments of the premiere and subsequent episodes delve into the fracturing relationships between the remaining characters as they come under suspicion by Sheriff Myers (Sean Blakemore). He’s particularly interested in Megan, who has shifted from a goodie two-shoe to a hard-edged hacker with slicked back hair and a hard drive full of secrets.
One of the joys of Cruel Summer is parsing through the show’s multi-tiered chronology in search of clues. Is amateur videographer Jeff (Nile Bullock) hiding something in his camcorder footage (regularly seen at parties)? Why does Brent’s girlfriend, Parker (Lisa Yamada) put up with his nonsense when she seems so cool? Whose face is seen on the sex tape that is publicly displayed at the Chambers Christmas party? Is the crazy, gun-toting neighbour up at the cottage involved? And what to make of the fleeting mentions of Isabella’s troubled past in St. Barts the previous year with her MIA best friend Lisa?
The acting is consistently good, particularly Stanley and Underwood, who have great chemistry together. It’s particularly fascinating to watch the girls interact in the Summer 99 timeline when Isabella is desperate to win Megan over, and then contrast that to their combative scenes in Winter 99 when Isabella becomes the target of malicious small town gossip and loses Megan’s unwavering support.
For audiences of a certain age, the show’s extremely specific time period will evoke plenty of nostalgia. The rudimentary computer font that types out the dates at the start of each episode, as well as floppy discs, a reference to Princess Diana’s memorial, and the fear about Y2K are all extremely on-brand details for 1999. And that’s before the turn of the century soundtrack is factored in.
Just like how Yellowjackets leaned into its 90s anthems, Cruel Summer isn’t afraid to set the mood with an iconic needle drop – some good (Sugar Ray’s “Every Morning”!), some…not (Smash Mouth’s “All Star”). It’s all in service to helping to ground the Y2K mystery in time.
The Bottom line: while season two of Cruel Summer doesn’t quite match the same level of gonzo twists as S01, the drama between Megan and Isabella is always compelling and the narrative frequently ventures into unanticipated territory, particularly in the build up to the murderous New Year’s party.
For fans of mysteries and YA, Cruel Summer is your new obsession.
“Cruel Summer” Season 2 premieres on June 5, 2023.