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A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Cruel Summer is a drama series about a popular teen who goes missing and the aftermath. The show's focus on popularity is one of its strong points; it displays the pain of exclusion and the things that people, and in particular teen girls, do to get and maintain popularity and power, including gossip and exclusion. Because of the abduction plot, you can expect to see a teen girl confined and abused by an adult man, as well as her loved ones grieving in various ways. Sexual visuals are generally confined to kissing, some of it quite passionate, but there are verbal references to teens and others having sex ("screwing"). During an emotional moment, a teen boy hits a girl in the nose, making her bleed; she forgives him immediately. A depressed teen drinks a glass of liquor while brooding over TV; another teen jokes about his father giving him his first beer on his 15th birthday. Language isn't constant but includes "hell" and "s--t." The show's overall tone is dark and bleak; families and friends have battles and are at odds, and teens are depressed and in need of help.
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What's the Story?
Playing out on the same days in 1993, 1994, and 1995, CRUEL SUMMER introduces us to Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia), who transforms over the course of three summers from a straight A student to what she calls "the most hated person in America." How? And why? The answer has something to do with Kate (Olivia Holt), who lives a seemingly charmed life as one of the most popular girls in school, until the day she goes suddenly missing. It's whispered that Jeanette may have had something to do with Kate's disappearance. Did she? Just what did Jeanette know and when, and what is Kate's not telling? As we slowly learn more about the two girls and what happened to and between them, the mystery continues to deepen.
Is It Any Good?
Dark, spooky, and compelling, this drama spools out its juicy twists so adroitly that viewers will find their sympathies swinging wildly from one character to the next. Is Jeanette a cold-blooded co-conspirator, or an innocent victim of circumstance who's been horribly misjudged? Is Kate's abduction as straightforward as it seems, and is her animosity towards Jeanette legit? What's the story with the simmering (but buried) conflict between these two teens' moms, and how did it impact Kate's ordeal? These mysteries and others pop along quickly, and the moment you think you have a handle on what happened, you're due for another revelation.
It helps that Cruel Summer's skipping-through-time format makes a chronology of events harder to construct. When we meet them in 1993, Kate is a high school queen and Jeanette's a wanna-be; by 1994, Kate's missing and Jeanette has seemingly taken her place in their high school's social circle; in 1995, Kate's grappling with the fallout of her experiences, while Jeanette's a pariah facing criminal charges. What happened in between each of the days we're allowed to view that pushed the narrative this way or that? You'll find out, but slowly, tantalizingly, and always in a way that makes you want to move on to the next episode immediately in a manner that might remind some viewers of the gripping first seasons of teen mysteries like Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why. In other words: get ready for your next binge.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the issues raised in Cruel Summer. Have your teens witnessed or experienced bullying or social exclusion? What different forms can this behavior take these days? What defenses can you use against it?
Families can also talk about dysfunctional family relationships and discuss why writers so often turn to them for good material, both for drama and comedy. What is it about the relationships in Cruel Summer that's compelling? How could Jeanette and Kate's parents have supported their daughters better?
Kidnapping and sexual assault plays a large role in this series. Families can talk about resources available to teens; the Crisis Text Line is an excellent way for phone-shy teens to reach out in times of need.
- Premiere date: April 20, 2021
- Cast: Chiara Aurelia, Andrea Anders, Benjamin J. Cain Jr.
- Network: Freeform
- Genre: Drama
- TV rating: TV-MA
- Last updated: October 14, 2022
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