Freeform is coming back stronger than a ‘90s trend – their 10 episode series “Cruel Summer” focuses on the intertwined lives of two teenage girls in small town Texas in 1993, 1994, and 1995 (each episode features the same day from all three years).
Aside from being a unique change of pace for both teen and adult viewers, the show has an important message with a touching dose of ‘90s nostalgia. The show centers on the beautiful, popular, and wealthy Kate Wallis and her dramatic foil, the quirky, working-class Jeanette Turner.
The show unfolds over a three-year period, from Kate’s abduction, to Jeanette’s rise to popularity, and concludes with the destruction of both Jeanette’s newfound social status and Kate’s shocking accusations towards Jeanette.
Spoilers Ahead (Obviously)
The series opens with Kate and Jeanette, who attend the same school and live in the same small town, but couldn’t be more different from each other.
Later, we discover that Kate has gone missing and between that time and her eventual recovery, Jeanette essentially replaces Kate, and acquires both her popularity, her friends, and even her boyfriend.
When Kate is found, she makes a shocking accusation: that Jeanette knew her kidnapper and where she was, but she didn’t tell anyone in order to maintain her footing as Kate’s replacement. In the end, we learn that Kate’s relationship with her kidnapper (the vice principal, Martin Harris) was much closer than she let on, and that in reality, it was her close friend Mallory, not Jeanette, who knew where she was.
The series really makes a concerted effort to show how the media distorts and exacerbates the accusations made by both girls, wherein Kate is the perfect victim who fell prey to a sick pedophile, and Jeanette is the heartless opportunist who exploits a tragic situation for her own selfish gains.
In the end, we learn that the truth – that Kate went willingly into Martin’s hands – is much more complicated than either girl wants to let on (and that Jeanette’s not entirely blameless, as the closing shot reveals).
The Hallmarks of Grooming
Cruel Summer’s hallmark is the caveat given at the beginning and end of each episode, which warns viewers about the disturbing aspects exhibited by the series’ characters. For Kate, it’s being groomed by a trusted adult who’s loved by the community, and for Jeanette, it’s being physically assaulted and stalked by her boyfriend (who she later returns to, which I didn’t love for obvious reasons).
This is not a new trend in actuality. FX’s A Teacher, starring Kate Mara and Nick Robinson, also depicts the complex damage a grooming relationship can enact on a vulnerable individual. Portraying grooming, statutory rape, and a young person being taken advantage of by an adult is a tall order, and many viewers felt that A Teacher just didn’t accomplish what Cruel Summer does so well. Mainly, depictions of sexual scenarios made it appear that Mara and Robinson’s relationship is overly romanticized, even approved of. In contrast, while we know that Kate and Martin have sex in Cruel Summer, none of that is ever shown.
The bottom line is this: Even though Kate did go willingly to Martin’s house initially, and fell prey to his warped ideations of their supposedly consensual relationship, she could not consent to a relationship with him, whether purely romantic or sexual, as a minor.
On my second and third rewatch of the series, Martin exhibits classic grooming techniques, even though he does many of them with subtlety. He does cross physical boundaries with her, isolates her from her family so that Kate believes he’s the only person she can confide in, pushes her to keep their relationship hidden, and shows preferential treatment to her, singling her out from the very beginning of their relationship.
Olivia Holt, who plays Kate, explains it like this: “He spoke to Kate as a peer, as an adult, he didn't talk to her like a teacher talking to a student. He tried to find things that they had in common and that he could relate to. So, I don't think that he thinks of himself as a bad person because that's the only way that he'd be able to get through his day-to-day life. But I do think that all of the groundwork that he puts in, it all kind of comes together in the way that he hoped.”
Who Was the Real Victim?
Though Kate is the obvious victim of the series, Jeanette also suffers from her own trauma, from her abusive relationship with Kate’s ex-boyfriend Jamie, and from her relationship with her parents which later crumbles when her mother leaves the family.
We see Kate, through the journey of therapy, confront her shame and self-blame in a healthy and safe environment, which helps viewers who might misunderstand the part she seemingly played in her own abduction, revealing how Martin’s grooming was as successful as it was subversive.
Simultaneously, we see Jeanette’s emotions and coping abilities unravel as she examines her lost friendships, the conflicts within her family, and the stalking and emotionally abusive tactics of her on-again, off-again boyfriend (which in my opinion is a plot point that isn’t discussed nearly enough).
Both Kate and Jeanette are victims, though in different ways, and the distinct ways they handle their trauma (Kate through therapy, Jeanette through acting out) are difficult to comprehend on just one watch of the series. They also accurately depict how people respond differently to trauma.
Fans, myself included, can rejoice! The series was renewed by Freeform for another season, though we’re not yet sure if it will follow the same storyline or morph into an anthology series. (Speaking personally, a different plot with brand new characters set in an alternate vintage period might be the way to go.)
The tone of the show, while dark, is still enjoyable due to its aesthetic and the high-waisted denim shorts and scrunchies worn are trends we can observe even today.
While Freeform’s productions are usually concerned with inaccurate depictions of high schoolers, gratuitous sex or drug use, and farfetched plotlines, Cruel Summer is a rarified series, expertly produced with its ‘90s vibes and a key takeaway that’s genuinely useful to young audiences.
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