Cruel Summer just premiered with two back-to-back episodes — “Happy Birthday, Jeanette Turner” and “A Smashing Good Time.” While many can just chalk this two-hour introduction to the series as a way to truly get fans hooked, it seems to almost be done in a way to really drive all of the storytelling aspects that the series is doing home, basically dedicating one episode each to introducing the two main characters, which you will find yourself torn between as you are forced to pick a side.
The series comes from showrunner Tia Napolitano and executive producers Jessica Biel and Michelle Purple. For the remainder of this review we will be getting into spoilers, so only continue reading if you’ve seen episodes 1×01 and 1×02 of Freeform’s Cruel Summer. The series also gives a warning for images of domestic violence for these episodes that may be triggering so this will apply to this review as well.
“Happy Birthday, Jeanette Turner” really showcases Chiara Aurelia’s range as an actress, taking us through (approximately) June 21st, 1993, 1994, and 1995. While you might be worried about each timeline getting confusing, each year has a life of its own, blending together in a way that leaves you on the edge of your seat as you slowly work to put the pieces together. Each year will bring us a different phase of Jeanette, ‘93 allowing us to meet a sweet, nerdy girl just trying to find herself, ‘94 showing us the type of girl that society deems as perfect and worthy of attention, and ‘95 introducing us to the most despised person in America.
The intro to this episode is extremely well done, starting off with Jeanette being woken up by her parents, played by Michael Landes and Sarah Drew, in 1993 for her 15th birthday. We also meet her brother, Derek (Barrett Carnahan). Next, we see her being woken up in 1994 for her birthday by Jamie Henson (Froy Gutierrez), a cute moment between the couple. Lastly, her father, Greg, greets her in 1995 on her birthday by telling her to wake up and that her lawyer is here; he adds a small ‘happy birthday’ and just like that, we’re pulled in for more.
In ‘93, we see Jeanette celebrating her birthday with her two best friends, Mallory Higgins (Harley Quinn Smith) and Vince Fuller (Allius Barnes). During a trip to the mall, Jeanette spots Kate (Olivia Holt) and nervously approaches her. As small as this scene is in the grand story they’re telling, the acting is done so perfectly between both actresses that it definitely stands out and is the perfect start to the two interacting.
The three friends end up breaking into one of the houses that Jeanette’s father has just sold, stealing the key from his office. We are left with an eerie feeling as Jeanette wanders into the creepy basement while trying to find her friends (the trio playing hide and seek) but don’t get to harp on it too much as we are soon being introduced to Martin Harris (Blake Lee). We find out that he is going to be the new assistant principal. There are some important things to note with this encounter/sequence.
First of all, Jeanette originally did not want to do this and after they get caught, her friends assume she is going to be angry with them for making her do this. Instead, though, the whole thing only seems to excite Jeanette. Another thing is that instead of returning the key after all this, she actually decides to keep the key in a jewelry box with the necklace she got for her birthday from Mallory and Vince.
The drama truly begins to unfold in 1994. Jeanette has completely transformed herself and we don’t exactly see what has led to this drastic change yet, but she has essentially got the dream life she wished for the year before. She is dating Kate’s old boyfriend, Jamie, and is now best friends with Kate’s best friends. As Kate puts it, Jeanette has basically taken her place after she went missing. Jeanette is no longer friends with Mallory and Vince; Mallory says they were discarded and Vince tries to say that they all changed. However, this new picture-perfect life that we get a glimpse of quickly disappears after Kate is found.
It is revealed that Martin was behind the abduction, keeping her locked in the basement and that he was killed in a deadly shootout. Jeanette’s first thought after learning about the news is to go see Jamie, but Jamie is livid about something and punches Jeanette in the face.
‘95 introduces the concept of some sort of trial or court case as Jeanette meets with her lawyer; it is unclear what exactly it is for except that it has something to do with Kate and her disappearance. In one scene, Aurelia gives a heartwrenching and emotional speech when asked by her lawyer to be more likable to make it seem like she is the wronged party and win over the jury. No matter whose side you end up landing on, this scene is sure to be in the back of your mind. Probably the most important part of this episode is towards the end when it is revealed, as Jeanette watches a videotape of a 1994 news footage interview, that Kate said that Jeanette had seen her while she was being held captive and didn’t save her or tell anyone, instead, choosing to take over her life.
“A Smashing Good Time” allows us to see more from the mysterious and almost idealized, Kate Wallis. This episode, we are taken through June 26th, 1993, 1994, and 1995. Like Aurelia did in the previous episode, Holt ensures that she delivers a unique and different performance for each year; both actresses almost making us feel as though we are seeing three different characters each when in reality it’s just showing how much we grow as human beings. This episode is our first change in narration, making viewers question who exactly is the reliable narrator in this story.
Episode two also allows us to see the festivities of the annual Skylin Garden Club Party, which is done in all three years. In a disturbing scene, with the context we know from episode one, Kate’s mother, Joy, delivers a speech at the ’93 party to welcome their new neighbor, Martin. It drives the point home that you never truly know who or what you are welcoming into your life.
1993 gives fans a glimpse at Kate’s relationship with her parents, played by Andrea Anders and Ben Cain. Due to a question of her stepfather’s fidelity, we see a series of events that leads to two important pieces of the puzzle; it is actually her mother that is cheating and we see Kate and Martin’s first interaction when she ends up in front of his house after spending the night drinking, leaving her house after seeing her mother kiss another man.
On another note, we see the mother and daughter duos of both the Turner and Wallis family interact after a dance and fitness class. Joy doesn’t shy away from the fact that she considers herself better than the Turners and when Jeanette’s mother, Cindy, suggests a girls’ day with the four of them, Kate is the one to have a heart and welcome the idea. After the encounter, Joy comments about how Cindy acts like she wants to be her, a direct parallel to what is going to occur between their daughters.
In 1994, we see Kate struggling to readjust to her life after being saved. She expresses to Jamie how replaceable she feels after what occurred with Jeanette. He tells her that she’s here now and to reclaim her life. The scene is clearly a vulnerable and raw one between them and for each individual character as both are trying to figure out everything they are dealing with. Jamie reluctantly agrees to meet up with Jeanette to hear what she has to say and the girl denies Kate’s accusations, saying it has to be a story that Kate made up because of the trauma she’s faced.
Kate had seen the message on Jamie’s pager about the meeting and decided to follow him. She sees the two of them kissing and after that, Kate makes her statement to the cops about Jeanette seeing her during her captivity and even provides them with proof: the ‘You Go Girl’ necklace that was given to Jeanette for her birthday the year before.
This time when we are in 1995 Kate goes on her computer and discovers a chat for abduction victims. She ends up making an account and speaks with someone in a private chat, asking what the person thinks would happen if they found out that she has not been completely honest.
In one final twist for this premiere, it is disclosed on the news Jeanette is suing Kate for defamation of character. To make this scene even more powerful, we have Kate’s parents yelling about the news in the background while Kate has a flashback of her locked in the basement, pounding on the door and begging for it to be opened.