It’s the summer of 1993 and shy Jeanette Turner seems to have a peculiar fascination with the town’s “It girl,” Kate Wallis. By the following summer, Kate has vanished, and Jeanette has seamlessly stepped into her shoes—sporting a similar look, hanging out with her best friends, and smooching her boyfriend. But fast forward to 1995, and Jeanette’s become the most hated girl in America after being accused of knowing Kate had been kidnapped and doing nothing to save her.
Cruel Summer, premiering April 20 on Freeform, is the network’s newest series and it doesn’t disappoint, delivering a whiplash-inducing storyline that bounces between a series of days in 1993, 1994, and 1995.
The episodes also juggle the viewpoints of Jeanette and Kate, played by newcomers Chiara Aurelia and Olivia Holt. As viewers are slowly clued in on how Kate was abducted, you’re left wondering whether Jeanette really stood by while Kate was being held captive, or if Kate is hellbent on revenge after being so easily replaced.
Despite being both Aurelia and Holt’s biggest project to date, the series allows them to show off their considerable acting chops, as they essentially play three different versions of the same character over the course of a single episode.
Since rebranding from ABC Family in 2017, Freeform has struggled to find a hit series, and it desperately needs one with its most popular show, The Bold Type, drawing to a close this year.
Luckily, Cruel Summer has all the hallmarks of a hit, echoing the network’s past successes Pretty Little Liars and The Secret Life of the American Teenager—a compelling and attractive cast, potential love triangles, and characters who all seem to be hiding secrets.
It also has Jessica Biel in its corner, with the veteran actress serving as executive producer. Biel is no stranger to TV sitcoms and mystery-thrillers, having got her start in the family/teen drama 7th Heaven as well as starring in and producing The Sinner. Series directors Daniel Willis, Bill Purple, and Max Winkler also boast solid track records, with credits on Grey’s Anatomy, New Girl, and The Blacklist.
The show’s tone is quickly set within its first five minutes, as Jeanette goes through three incarnations of herself. She’s first seen as an awkward teen, complete with braces and glasses, celebrating her 15th birthday by running around the small town of Skylin, Texas, and engaging in goofy antics with her two best friends. During a trip to the mall, she crosses paths with Kate, sidling up to her and stumbling through a conversation about it being her birthday.
The show suddenly flashes forward to a year later, with a much more stylish Jeanette waking up to a birthday cupcake from her new boyfriend Jamie—who was dating Kate at the time of her disappearance. He brings her to a roller rink where she mingles with her new friends, who also used to be in Kate’s inner circle.
But by her 17th birthday, Jeanette wakes up to the news that her lawyer is waiting downstairs. A volatile Jeanette is now persona non grata after Kate accused her on national television of witnessing her locked up in a basement and ignoring what she saw so she could steal her life.
The second episode follows a similar format, only this time it’s Kate’s turn to tell her side of the story. Kate is the princess of this small town—wealthy, attractive, and equipped with a devoted posse and a doting boyfriend. Still, she goes out of her way to be kind to Jeannette during the summer of ’93.
By the following year, Kate has been rescued but is now a shell of herself, resenting her mother and her friends, who quickly moved on to a new ringleader. She publicly lashes out at Jeanette while privately admitting to a fellow abduction survivor that she hasn’t been entirely honest about what happened to her.
In 1995, both Kate and Jeanette are finally on an equal playing field—two outcasts boiling with rage and contempt for one another. Over the following eight episodes, we’ll venture ever closer to the truth about who has been lying, and who else in their lives may have played a role. Buckle up.