Cruel Summer is a cruel mistress. Amazon’s new 10-episode non-murder-mystery drama is set over three summers in the 90s, bouncing about among them in every instalment. How well you get along with it will depend on how much energy you have, how delicately attuned you are to changes in hairstyle and makeup, and how well your viewing device reproduces the different filters and colour palettes of each year.
Once you do have your eye in (top tip: the blue-tinted scenes are 1995, bespeaking the emotional mood of the town where it’s set by then), the underlying story that emerges is a good ’un. In 1993, Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) is an unselfconscious, bespectacled teenage girl just on the nerd side of the tracks, who has two good, similar friends Vincent (Allius Barnes) and Mallory (Harley Quinn Smith) with whom she happily goofs around. Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) is a pretty blonde from the other side of the popularity tracks (though a sweet, rather than a mean, girl – Mean Girls’ Regina George can sleep easy). Jeanette is obviously fascinated by her and the idea of having a handsome boyfriend, school status and all the rest of the teenage trappings. She makes some shy overtures of friendship that are not so much rebuffed as unnoticed. Then, one day, Kate disappears.
When we cut to 1994, hopes that Kate had run away have given way to the likelihood that she was kidnapped and, by this point, the presumption that she has been killed. And Jeanette – now smooth-haired and spectacle-free – has effectively taken her place in the school and social hierarchy. She is friends with Kate’s friends now, instead of Vince and Mallory, and is even going out with Kate’s boyfriend Jamie (Froy Gutierrez). It is no spoiler – since it is the pivot around which the show turns – to say that Kate is found alive, and claims that Jeanette knew where she was being held but told no one.
In 1995, Jeanette is vilified throughout the town and beyond. Her father is barely talking to her, and a welter of lawsuits, recriminations and accusations surround her and her family. Jamie, of course, will have nothing to do with her.
The first episode tells the story from Jeanette’s point of view, the second from Kate’s and the viewpoints alternate thereafter. You may want to have a stiff drink at this point, but it won’t help. Whether the differing points of view and hopping back, forth and sideways adds more than it detracts from this intriguing premise is debatable. By the end of the three episodes that were available for review one began to suspect that the makers themselves might be wishing they had come up with a simpler gimmick and given the audience something slightly closer to Pretty Little Liars than Memento, at least in terms of the amount of attention viewers need to devote to follow the narrative. The basic design principle that form should follow function doesn’t hold as true for television as it does for, say, teapots but it shouldn’t be abandoned.
Once you do lean in, accept the extra viewing labour and prepare to be occasionally baffled, Cruel Summer works both as an intriguing mystery and as an onion-layered study in the mutability of human relationships. It begins to take in the private lives and backgrounds of the adults around the protagonists and to push at darker issues (the show and publicity carry warnings about grooming, child abuse and domestic violence).
As the impact of events and characters’ decisions and backstories unfold, the drama begins to ask what shapes us, and how fundamentally. Matters of agency, courage and cowardice emerge and the story starts to accrue depth along with the superficial puzzle of the kidnapping and who saw what and when. If you can deal with the trifurcated timeline, there’s much to enjoy and admire.