From its record viewership numbers, to its undeniable pop culture buzz, to its rather unconditional critical acclaim, the inaugural season of “Cruel Summer” was a surprise – and welcome – hit for Freeform.
Its success predictably paved the way for a second season, albeit one that came with reservations and challenges. For starters, news quickly emerged that “Cruel Summer” would be approached as an anthology (with a completely new cast) rather than an ongoing serialized drama. Given how pivotal the initial characters (and actors) were to the show’s success, there was undeniable risk in aiming for a second strike of lightning.
The two-year gap between the two seasons further complicated matters; with buzz over the first season having long-ago subsided, would fans still be excited for another tale?
And then, of course, there was the broader reality that sequels – regardless of whether or not the cast remains – often have a tough time living up to the magic of the first edition.
As far as interest levels, things started very optimistically. Initial trailers generated ample buzz on social media, and the first episode fared well from a ratings standpoint.
Concerns over quality, however, proved more legitimate. Critical reviews were not as glowing, and the practical viewing experience was not as engaging.
Still, “Cruel Summer” has remained consistently watchable – and occasionally quite compelling – in the build-up to the Monday, July 31 finale. The finale itself also makes for a solid viewing experience, although it is not dazzling enough to alter perspectives. Those who enjoyed the season will likely find at least some satisfaction in the final installment, while those unimpressed will remain confident that the new season failed to live up to its predecessor.
Ahead of Monday’s finale, we look at what worked and did not work in the second season of “Cruel Summer.”
What worked in season two of “Cruel Summer”
Sadie Stanley and Lexi Underwood
There was a lot to love about season one of “Cruel Summer,” but nothing was more essential to its resonance than the two leads. Chiara Aurelia was an utter revelation, and Olivia Holt delivered a richly charismatic, nuanced performance worthy of legitimate awards recognition.
Their incredible performances produced massive shoes for this year’s leads to fill – and Sadie Stanley (Megan) and Lexi Underwood (Isabella) were generally up to the challenge. The undeniably capable actresses were always engaging – and, at times, magnetic – on screen, and they played a huge role in keeping the show watchable.
Any negative comparison to last year’s leads would be more the result of thinner, less compelling characterization than it would be due to a discrepancy of talent.
The cast structure further inhibited their resonance; Griffin Gluck (Luke) was introduced as a third lead of sorts, playing a love interest for Stanley and Underwood’s characters as well as the victim of the central crime. His involvement was significant enough to prevent Stanley and Underwood from owning the screen the way their season one counterparts did, but not extensive enough for Gluck to deliver a memorable performance (though he was routinely effective).
Despite those drawbacks and limitations, it is highly unlikely that anyone who watched the entirety of “Cruel Summer” season two will walk away with anything but a very positive opinion of how Stanley and Underwood performed in their roles. Nor should they, as both were excellent.
The tone and narrative style
Although individual events, storylines and bits of dialogue may defy realism, the show’s overall tone is refreshingly low-key, dark, and human. Relationships and betrayals are important, and tragic events are crushing. The engaging tone differentiates “Cruel Summer” from the cliche teen drama, enabling viewers to immerse themselves in the world and its characters without any sense of guilt.
The Y2K nostalgia and music
Much like the inaugural season, the most recent chapter of “Cruel Summer” pays homage to a prior era in a tasteful way. There were some awkward misses – the stilted delivery of “As If,” for example – but the references to the Y2K were rarely distracting. They provided a useful setting without ever diluting interest in the characters and storylines.
The era-relevant music, moreover, remains an utter highlight of the show. Whether through ubiquitous retro hits, surprisingly quirky choices, or haunting covers of older songs, the soundtrack almost universally adds weight to what is happening on screen. Monday’s episode features a supremely effective cover during an especially important scene.
Specific story threads
Narrative was a big picture problem in season two, but the writers remained capable of crafting entertaining individual moments. Storylines like the Fake ID outing to the local pub, Megan turning up the charm to win over Luke at a party (ignoring her boyfriend in the process), and Isabella attempting to build friendships outside of Megan (notably with Parker) all made for fun viewing.
The problem is that these issues were too fleeting, as the show routinely prioritized the overarching mystery over the individual character moments that make people care about that mystery.
What did not work in season two of “Cruel Summer”
Overemphasis on the crime, underemphasis on human development
Make no mistake, the mystery mattered in the show’s first season. We all wanted to know what exactly happened to Kate, just as we wanted to know what role, if any, Jeanette played in her prolonged suffering.
But it was not a textbook “whodunnit,” because the mystery was still second to human character development. The real hook of “Cruel Summer” was witnessing how the main characters evolved over the three time periods – and how that evolution intersected with the devastating event at the center.
Season two, on the other hand, seems to be prioritizing the “who killed Luke” question more than the human, psychological ramifications of the incident.
As a result, we end up caring less about the mystery that “Cruel Summer” is spending so much time creating. The reason why the emotional seesaw of the first season’s final chapter proved so meaningful is that we knew and cared enough about Jeanette to experience joy in her apparent vindication … and then heartbreak and betrayal upon learning the final truth.
None of the characters in season two – including lead characters – received enough organic human development for us to meaningfully care about any blame or absolution of blame we receive in the final episode.
Even with some emotional context provided by the penultimate episode, the late-season villainization of Luke, meanwhile, dampened our concern for the crime itself. Although his “heel turn” served to create more potential suspects in the “whodunnit” (thus adding to the mystery element), they made him a less sympathetic victim – and the consequences of his death less believably transformative.
Elimination of character-centric episodes
One culprit behind the season’s insufficient emphasis on humanity? The loss of character-centric episodes.
Season one of “Cruel Summer” centered certain episodes around one of the two leads. Offering clearer insight into their perspectives, insecurities, and emotional challenges, this storytelling device helped establish Jeannette and Kate as real, relatable, flawed people.
Season two generally did not directly rely on this device, instead positioning Megan as the emotional centerpiece of most episodes. But because other characters still received lead-level screen time, it was not as if we received this incredibly thorough window into Megan’s motivations either. Her development between the time frames still seemed rushed and superficial, thus preventing us from caring about her the way we did the season one leads.
And since we rarely got stories from the pure perspective of Isabella and Luke, we had even less of an opportunity to develop an emotional connection with their respective evolutions.
Condensed time frame
Another structural misfire concerned the reduction of the timespan. Instead of covering three consecutive summers like season one, season two set its three time periods as summer, winter, and the following summer. Worse, the central crime did not happen until the second period – and the criminal investigation did not start until the third time period.
Ultimately, this meant that it became very difficult to demonstrate legitimate contrast, let alone believable emotional growth and change, between the different eras. Yes, the show used different coloring (and gave Megan a new look) for the final chapter, but it ultimately did not feel like we were watching a true journey.
As a result, we did not truly see the long-term emotional stakes and consequences of key actions – and thus had further reason to invest ourselves in any individual character’s fate.
Too much telling, not enough showing
Season two of “Cruel Summer” was never shy about explaining details about its characters. It told us that Isabella and Megan became “ride or die” friends. It told us about the pros and cons of life in Chatham. It told us that Megan and Luke were perfect for each other. It told us about the challenges Luke faced being a member of the Chambers family. It told us that Isabella had some complicated issues in her past.
But it rarely allowed us to experience these factors. We might have seen a demeaning conversation between Luke and his father or a cute moment between Megan and Luke or Megan and Isabella, but we never witnessed these relationships materialize in a deep, organic way. We rarely got to see a burgeoning friendship or romance worthy of our support, just as we rarely got to see a rift worthy of our sympathy or worry.
This can also be traced to the condensed time frame, as a perfect example of the “tell not show” flaw concerns Megan’s development from the middle time frame to the latter one. Actually seeing her transformation – or, at least, the mental pain associated with the transformation – would make us care more about how things shake out.
The “Cruel Summer” season finale will air on Freeform at 10PM ET on July 31; it will be available on Hulu starting tomorrow.