Limited series have become the equivalent of trial marriages for cable networks and streamers. When they don’t catch fire — or run hot initially only to smolder by season’s end – they complete their self-contained stories and disappear into the void. (It’s technically not a cancellation!) But when the audience falls in love with a limited series, networks are more than happy to extend the runway, even when doing so is narratively prohibitive.
Such is the case with Freeform’s “Cruel Summer,” the intelligent, twisty teen mystery that debuted in 2021 and became the most-watched series since the network’s 2016 rebrand. Technically, “Cruel Summer” wasn’t announced as a limited series, but it came to such a comprehensive conclusion that extending it after its wrapped up state would have reeked of desperation. After considering multiple options, including having the same ensemble return as new characters, the producers opted to anthologize the show, promising new stories and new casts with each season.
The elements of Season 1 that survived into Season 2 can now be considered the show’s foundation. It takes place in the recent past, post-internet but pre-social media. There’s still a fractured narrative that bounces around in time and features a pair of teenage girls with diverging perspectives on traumatic events. There’s also an underlying dialogue about what sexuality and consent look like for young adults just beginning to develop their sense of agency. “Cruel Summer” is essentially what “Damages” would have been if Glenn Close and Rose Byrne’s characters had met in 5th-period pre-calculus instead of at a corporate law firm.
This time, the fateful meeting takes place in Chatham, an idyllic Pacific coastal town that replaces the idyllic Texas suburb of Season 1. Megan (Sadie Stanley) is a budding white-hat hacker with a lot on her plate between school, a part-time job waiting tables, and a role-reversed relationship with her flighty mother Debbie (KaDee Strickland). Debbie’s latest capricious decision is to invite Isabella (Lexi Underwood) to join them in Chatham as part of a student exchange. When Isabella takes a shine to Megan’s platonic bestie Luke (Griffin Gluck), a complex love triangle spirals out of control.
While the broad strokes of “Cruel Summer” are all covered, based on the seven episodes screened for critics, Season 2 lacks the layers and nuances that made the first season so engrossing. Take, for example, the cold open of the series premiere, which established the show’s rigid time-jumping format. The main character wakes up on her birthday in three consecutive years: in the first, she’s meek and bookish; in the next, she’s confident and stylish; and in the third, she’s an isolated pariah who would have just as soon not woken up at all. It’s impossible to watch it and not be slightly curious about the events that led from one iteration of the character to the next.
The story of Megan and Isabella uses the same format, but over a shorter span of time. Rather than the yearlong gap separating each storyline, the entire season takes place over a year, with a different iteration of Megan and Isabella’s friendship in the summer of 1999, the winter of the same year, and the summer of 2000. (One of the best decisions was to make Y2K anxiety a prevailing theme.) But here, less doesn’t feel like more. This is a much smaller ensemble with fewer ancillary characters and side quests, but the story feels like it has shrunken along with the scope and the cast. As odd as it is to fault a mystery series for focusing too intently on the mystery, that’s the failing of Season 2, mostly because the core whodunnit isn’t terribly interesting.
The performances aren’t quite as strong either. Stanley, who remained a bright spot on “The Goldbergs” even as the show withered around her, is perfectly solid as Megan, as is Underwood as Lexi, though she was much better in her last domestic thriller, “Little Fires Everywhere.” But there’s less for the actors to chew on in this relatively thin story, and fewer opportunities to play different shades of the same character. (The exception is Paul Adelstein, a live wire as Luke’s dad.) None of the performances feels like a potential star-maker like that of Chiara Aurelia and Olivia Holt in season 1.
Rebooting “Cruel Summer” was bound to be tough, and showrunner Elle Triedman has done an admirable job of breaking the first season down to its studs and building it back up. If the show is fortunate to run as an anthology as long as, say, “American Horror Story,” the second season may look years from now much better than it does in the moment. But after a two-year wait between seasons, Season 2 doesn’t feel substantive enough to have faith in the show’s longevity.
“Cruel Summer” premieres on Freeform with two episodes on June 5, with new episodes airing weekly, and then streaming the following day on Hulu.