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In Cruel Summer, teen mysteries grow up

Nineties-set high school mystery series ‘Cruel Summer’ has been one of this year’s under-the-radar hits in the US. As it arrives in the UK, Kevin E G Perry investigates the perpetual appeal of teens turning detective

Tuesday 03 August 2021 06:33 BST
Mall wonder: Harley Quinn Smith, Chiara Aurelia and Allius Barnes in ‘Cruel Summer’
Mall wonder: Harley Quinn Smith, Chiara Aurelia and Allius Barnes in ‘Cruel Summer’ (Freeform)

In the hit US teen mystery series Cruel Summer, the hook of intrigue is baited right from the time-hopping opening sequence. We see highschooler Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) on the morning of her 15th birthday in 1993 – a gawky, awkward child being happily woken up by her adoring dad. Then we skip forward a year to 1994, as a now glasses-and-braces-free Jeanette starts her 16th birthday with a kiss from dreamy new boyfriend Jamie (Froy Gutierrez). Finally, we arrive in 1995, shot in moody blues and blacks, as Jeanette’s father kicks off her 17th birthday by informing her it’s time to get up and meet her lawyer. Jeanette’s surly response of “Which one?” doesn’t exactly bode well for whatever it is our hero has been getting up to during her previous two summer holidays.

As the greatest screen teen of them all, Ferris Bueller, once put it: “Life moves pretty fast.” This is surely never more true than during those few short years that mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. Is anyone ever the same person at 17 as they were at 15? It seems doubtful. Wherever and however you happen to be doing your growing up, those years are a turbulent time. Throw in a missing girl, a sinister new teacher, and parents with their own secrets to hide, and you have a recipe for an enthralling mystery. Cruel Summer, which arrives in the UK on Friday courtesy of Amazon Prime, does exactly that.

Mysteries featuring teenagers hold perpetual cultural appeal. The entrance into adulthood, and the falling away of the secrets and mysteries that the grown-up world holds for children, is rich with potential. The tradition dates back to at least 1927, when American writer and publisher Edward Stratemeyer first introduced the Hardy Boys to the world. Brothers Frank and Joe Hardy are all-American Boy Scout types, and the pair have proved so enduringly popular that they’ve now appeared in well over 200 books and no fewer than six separate TV adaptations. Three years after the Hardy Boys first appeared, Stratemeyer also created their female counterpart, Nancy Drew, who cracked her first case in 1930’s The Secret of the Old Clock.

The success of these two series, which still sell in huge numbers to this day, has been attributed to two things: their engrossing mysteries, and the socially acceptable image they present of the lessons adolescents should be learning about the world. In the Hardy Boys’ universe, good always triumphs over evil, the police are always trustworthy, and sex categorically doesn’t exist. Those same rules hold true for their British equivalents, like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five – four perpetually picnicking children and their dog Timmy – who first appeared in 1942’s Five on a Treasure Island and went on to solve dozens of crimes and unmask various dastardly criminals over 21 books until 1963’s Five Are Together Again.

Teen mysteries have matured in the years since. Shows like Pennsylvania-set high school mystery Pretty Little Liars, which ran from 2010 to 2017 and is soon to be rebooted by HBO Max, and Riverdale, a dark-hued update of classic Archie Comics characters that debuted in 2017, present a much more adult world than the one the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew inhabited. Their characters don’t just unmask criminals – they explore the darkness hidden behind ostensibly picture-perfect families tucked safely behind their white picket fences.

Cruel Summer takes things a step further. Its characters may be young, but the trauma they suffer and the repercussions they face for their actions are very real, and there are no implausible soapy twists coming to save them. Tonally, the show pitches itself at the mid-point between teen dramas and prestige TV crime offerings like Mare of Easttown and Little Fires Everywhere. It shares with the latter show a keen interest in probing the class divisions that exist even – or especially – in the most quaint and picturesque of small suburban towns.

Like those more highbrow, adult-oriented shows, Cruel Summer is a limited series, which manages to satisfyingly unravel all its knotty twists by the end of its 10-episode run. This is easier said than done, as showrunner Tia Napolitano recently admitted. “We knew we had to do this right. We knew we had to deliver the actual truth,” Napolitano told TV Line. “We couldn’t fake the audience out. We couldn’t skip over it and just jump forward to a different mystery and brush past it. We knew we had to drill down and uncover the actual truth, and that’s hard.

“You know there’s a reason a lot of shows are unsatisfying at the end: because it’s very hard to untie that knot that you’ve gotten yourself into,” she added. “And we were just very thoughtful and very deliberate about it, and I hope we deliver.”

Into the (blind)fold: Olivia Holt and Harley Quinn Smith in ‘Cruel Summer’ (Freeform)

It’s fair to say they did. Thanks to Cruel Summer’s popularity in the US – it attracted both teens and adults, becoming the most watched show ever produced by cable channel Freeform – the series has already been renewed for a second season. What form this will take remains, well, a mystery – although the smart money seems to be on the show turning into an anthology series after wrapping its first story so conclusively. This could potentially involve using the original cast to tell a whole new story – a great excuse to bring back stand-out performers including Aurelia, Gutierrez, and Olivia Holt, who convincingly plays missing person Kate Wallis at three very different stages of her life.

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It’ll also be intriguing to see whether a new season of Cruel Summer moves forward in time or sticks with its Nineties setting. The first season benefits greatly from its period timeframe, and not just because none of the characters have mystery-killing mobile phones or cameras on their person at all times. The setting allows for lots of enjoyably nostalgic soundtrack moments (a chilling acoustic cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” and a karaoke version of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?”, to name but two) but more importantly it sets the story at a historical distance, placing it in the arena of urban legend. Its twisting story and shocking conclusion make it feel almost like a fable, or a scandalous local news story that you read and then forgot.

What it certainly doesn’t do is offer viewers – teenage or otherwise – any sturdy moral truths to hang on to. While the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew may have left their readers secure in the belief that good and evil are as distinct as black and white, Cruel Summer is a grown-up mystery that unspools its tantalising secrets in a world full of greys.

‘Cruel Summer’ is on Amazon Prime from 6 August

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