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Review: Freeform’s Addictive Crime Drama ‘Cruel Summer’ Returns with a Compelling Murder-Mystery

Review: Freeform’s Addictive Crime Drama ‘Cruel Summer’ Returns with a Compelling Murder-Mystery

In 2021, the first season of Freeform’s Cruel Summer made history as the channel’s most-watched series ever. This summer, the hit anthology series returns with new characters in a new town with plenty of drama of their own.

Elle Triedman (Guilt) takes over as showrunner for Tia Napolitano (Fire Country) who returns as an executive producer, along with Jessica Biel (Candy), Bill Purple, and Michelle Purple (The Sinner). With the success of Season 1, it’s not surprising if some fans are bummed that the story of Skylin, Texas teens Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) and Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt), won’t continue. But those who love a good who (why and how) dunnit will appreciate the show’s graduation from kidnapping to murder.

Cruel Summer Season 2 takes us to Chatham, Washington, a scenic waterfront town with an all-American feel. Megan Landry (Sadie Stanley) begins the Summer of 1999, her last summer as a high schooler, being forced to host an exchange student. Her mother Debbie (KaDee Strickland) hopes she’ll enjoy the experience, but Megan is anything from excited. In fact, she’s downright salty before the girl even gets there. 

When most people think of an exchange student, they probably expect someone with an accent who speaks a foreign language. Isabella (Lexi Underwood) arrives with a recognizable American accent (though I’m sure she knows more than one language) but is just as fascinating. She’s beautiful, warm, and instantly loves the Landrys. Megan is less than interested in a friendship with this gorgeous stranger but still has to show her around town. We see Isabella’s influential presence in action when she meets Megan’s friend group, especially her lifelong best friend Luke (Griffin Gluck). The vibe quickly changes, everyone’s enamored with the new girl, and Megan is jealous. 

The effortlessly cool, sex-positive, worldly Isabella has clearly already found herself, and casual self-discovery is a part of her day-to-day life. She’s confident in her “up for anything” attitude, always prepared to do something reckless, telling Megan, “Unpredictable is my brand.” She has a witty or flirty response for every interaction and isn’t afraid to dole out threats to people who cross her. Isabella is likable but also annoyingly awesome. Depending on how much you relate to the more reserved Megan, you’ll either think Isabella is genuinely a loyal, caring person looking for a connection or just someone who relishes attention and needs everyone to love her.

Megan is still discovering who she is and what she wants. She works too much for a teenager because she has to help out with bills at home. She’s overworking herself academically too. “She’s a straight-A student, a Goody Two-Shoes, and doesn’t really get out much or have the normal kid teenage experience,” Stanley described to Entertainment Weekly. She’s seemingly content hanging out with mostly male friends, but it doesn’t take long for Isabella to point out that there are palpable vibes between Megan and Luke. 

Like the previous season, this story is told in three parts. We meet the characters in July 1999, seeing how Isabella and Megan slowly form a sisterly bond. By December 1999, they are incredibly close, ride-or-die besties. However, in July 2000, there’s an obvious change in their relationship. Other than the onscreen introductory text denoting the current time, we can recognize the shift in time through the cinematography. July 1999 is bright and warm, but that December appears in blue hues, fitting for the winter season but also reflective of the dark cloud over the once sunny days in Chatham. The following summer is tainted by a tragic death, represented by the yellowish-green tint you’d see in a series set in the apocalypse.

Another helpful visual is the evolution of everyone’s appearances, attitudes, and behavior. By winter 1999, Megan’s been influenced by her stylish BFF, adopting a more feminine look, wearing short dresses, lip gloss, and hair sans ponytail. In 2000, she’s sporting an entirely different look — angsty and edgy with heavy black eyeliner, slicked-back hair, and an eyebrow piercing. This change in hair, makeup, and costume design is a huge part of what keeps us intrigued because we want to know how she went from the fresh-faced young woman who was “one of the boys” to the withdrawn, pierced loner in trip pants we see a year later.

Isabella goes through a less noticeable external transformation. When she gets to Chatham, she’s rocking fun, natural curls for the summer, short shorts, and cropped tanks. A few months later, she’s straightened her hair and adapted to the chillier weather. Summer 2000 is when she looks the most different. Given the harrowing events, Isabella’s in her IDGAF era — less makeup (or none at all) and pulled-back hair, looking exhausted by the constant stress and nonsense going on around her.  

Sadie Stanley and Lexi Underwood expertly balance the complex emotions of being a teenage girl. Megan and Isabella go from strangers to housemates to besties in a short amount of time, ending up in a place of hostility in the span of a year. Female friendships are intense, and the smallest rift can change everything. In an interview with BGN, Underwood discussed how moving around the world with her neglectful diplomat parents gave Isabella a sense of instability, adding, “She also hasn’t had the friendships, especially female friendships in a way she’s always desired to.”

Part of what made Cruel Summer so entertaining was the early/mid-’90s nostalgia, especially with music from the likes of Brandy, En Vogue, Garbage, and the Cranberries. Since this season takes place from 1999 to 2000, get ready for some Salt-N-Pepa, Crazy Town, and Christina Aguilera. Seeing teen girls teaching each other the choreography to 1999’s “Genie in a Bottle” might bring back some memories. (This is also the new millennium, so there’s the underlying anxiety that the world will end on Y2K and everyone has theories).

In terms of darkness, Cruel Summer is more on the Pretty Little Liars end of the YA genre spectrum rather than Yellowjackets (which leans more into surrealist horror). Season 2 delivers familiar YA fare — secrets, lies, crushes, breakups, college applications, police interrogations, public sex tapes, and murder investigations. The drama between Megan, Isabella, and Luke (and just about every other character) is at a level that’ll make you glad you’re out of high school. (My condolences if you’re still in high school). While Season 1 was a commentary on wealth, popularity, and being shaped by trauma, the second season is more about turbulent young relationships, both friendly and romantic, how quickly we evolve in our teen years, and how easily life can be altered by one person and/or one night. 

Cruel Summer’s sophomore season is just as addictive as its first, delivering another compelling story that goes beyond the typical teen angst into the lasting effects of a tragedy. While the back and forth might frustrate people who prefer a linear structure, the story unfolds in an overall nicely paced narrative that keeps you guessing.

Cruel Summer debuts its two-episode premiere on June 5, 2023, on Freeform, followed by a new episode every Monday night. Episodes will be available to stream on Hulu on Tuesdays. 

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