Poster for Cruel Summer, with Kate and Jeanette facing each other as if looking through a mirror


Title: Cruel Summer (Season #1)
Released: 2021

Fix: Yellowjackets Withdrawal, The 90s, Juicy Teen Drama, Time Jump Mystery
Platforms: Hulu

Hulu Summary:

From the executive producer, Jessica Biel, comes the chilling story of one girl, Kate Wallis, who goes missing. And another girl, Jeanette Turner, who mysteriously takes over her life. Told over 3 summers in the 90s, Cruel Summer will leave you torn between who to believe and what ‘the truth’ even looks like. Because the deeper you go in this mystery, the darker it gets. In this twisted tale, the truth is how you see it.

FYA Summary:

Okay, Hulu, not sure if Jessica Biel is a selling point here but ANYWAY, Cruel Summer jumps back and forth between 1993, 1994, and 1995 to tell the intertwining story of two teenage girls: Kate, a nice version of Regina George, and Jeanette, a sweet and innocent nerd (but not quite a Cady). After Kate goes missing, Jeannette suddenly vaults up the high school social ladder, only to fall into the depths of Pariahville when Kate is rescued from her kidnapper’s house… and accuses Jeanette of having seen her and turning a blind eye, leaving her trapped for several more months. The mystery grows more tangled with each episode unfolding events from both Kate and Jeanette’s perspectives, and as the layers peel away, one undeniable truth remains: ‘90s music still totally rules.  

(Semi-)Familiar Faces:

Jeanette, a nerdy looking girl with long brown hair and glasses

Chiara Aurelia as Jeanette

I haven’t seen Chiara in anything, but unlike Rachel Leigh Cook (sorry bb), she can VERY convincingly play a geek one minute and a hot girl the next. Yes, she has glasses and braces when she’s in her awkward phase (1993), but it’s more than that—her posture, her energy, her I-can’t-get-in-trouble nervousness, it’s all A+ level dork. Her talent really shines as the episodes flip from Jeanette, the sheltered nerd, to her confident, glossy 1994 self, and then to 1995, when she’s grim and despised and really doesn’t give a shit. Even as circumstances drastically change, Chiara maintains a recognizable core to the character, which I found very impressive. 

Kate, a pretty white girl with long blonde hair and a pleasant expression

Olivia Holt as Kate

I only watched a few episodes of Cloak and Dagger, but I remember thinking that Olivia Holt was SO pretty and SO compelling to watch. That remains true for her work in Cruel Summer, which is vital for lending empathy to Kate. You might think that a girl who’s been held hostage for a year would be the one you’re rooting for buuuut sometimes she kind of sucks, and that’s one of the aspects I really enjoyed about this series. With that said, Kate wrestles with a metric ton of trauma, and Olivia really sells those complex emotions without overdoing it. 

Also! One episode features a cover of “Today,” and I just discovered that Olivia is the singer! Is there anything this gal can’t do?

Jamie, a cute boy with tousled hair and blue eyes

Froy Gutierrez as Jamie

All I know about Froy is that he has quite a name, and he’s from Dallas! And he’s all kinds of cute. Jamie packs that YA boy killer combo of earnest charm and a crooked grin, plus a raspy voice, and I totally understood why both Kate and Jeanette were into him. (Yes, Teen Wolf fans, I can hear you telling me that he was also on that show but I didn’t watch it so simmer down now!)

Mallory, a tall white girl with bleached blonde hair, heavy eyeliner, and a snarky expression

Harley Quinn Smith as Mallory

And here we have another Name with a capital N: this time, it’s courtesy of Kevin Smith, Harley’s dad. I’ve seen her in movies like Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (she played Baby Silent Bob, hey-o!) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but Mallory seems like her meatiest role. As a member of Jeanette’s BFF trio (with Vince, see below), Mallory is a bossy, loud-mouthed, alterna grrrl, and I found her character arc to be the most interesting.

Vince, a skinny Black guy with glasses

Allius Barnes as Vince

Out of all of these young actors, Allius’ credits wowed me the most because HE WAS ON PEN15! (Also, again, what is with this cast and Names?) Vince is my absolute favorite, and not just because he’s like, the only kind person on the entire show. He works at a video store! He stands by his friends no matter what! He has a very calming demeanor which I appreciated since everyone else in this series is INTENSITY IN TEN CITIES! But yeah, I love him mostly because he’s just a really, really good dude.

Denise, an Asian American woman with shoulder-length dark hair, wearing a suit

Nicole Bilderback as Denise 

Okay, there’s plenty of other—and more prominent—adult characters on this show, but I had to spotlight Nicole because, hello, she’s whoa-whoa-Whitney in Bring It On! This woman is ‘90s teen royalty, with appearances on Buffy, Dawson’s Creek, and Can’t Hardly Wait, and I love that she’s playing an adult (Jeanette’s lawyer) on a show set in the time period when she reigned. Keep on keepin’ on, Nicole!

Couch-Sharing Capability: Regulators, Mount Up!

While this series never reaches the quality level (or death count) of Yellowjackets, it has plenty of similar “oh shit!” moments that make for the perfect collective gasp. Plus, it’s not as fun to shout, “WHY ARE YOU MAKING THESE BAD CHOICES?!!” at the screen when you’re alone.

Recommended Level of Inebriation: Tubthumping*

Cruel Summer is deliciously twisty with a whiff of camp, so you want to be alert enough to follow the time jumps (indicated by hairstyle/wig changes and camera filters) but loose enough to fully embrace the DRAMA. Speaking of, shout-out to Kate’s mom, actor Andrea Anders, who is BEYOND as a scenery-chewing, gun-toting, Texas blonde socialite. The accent alone, y’all. Wow. 

*So maybe you take a whiskey drink, you take a vodka drink, and then you stop right there.

Use of Your Streaming Subscription: Fantastic Voyage

This series reminds me of a Christopher Pike novel: it’s not groundbreaking, nor is it award-worthy, but it sure is a hell of a ride. While I found the ending to be a bit much, I definitely didn’t see most (if any?!) of the reveals coming, and I enjoyed that the show wasn’t afraid to, in the words of Michael Keaton, GET NUTS. 

Speaking of wild, there might be a sequel? I could ask why and how but there’s no use in pretending that I won’t watch it.

Sarah lives in Austin, and believes there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, which is part of why she started FYA in 2009. Growing up, she thought she was a Mary Anne, but she's finally starting to accept the fact that she's actually a Kristy.