Freeform is taking viewers back to the 1990s to unravel the mystery of what happened during one Cruel Summer.
Premiering with two episodes this Tuesday (at 9/8c), the ’90s-set drama centers around awkward teen Jeanette (Tell Me Your Secrets‘ Chiara Aurelia), who longs to be pretty and popular like her classmate Kate (Cloak & Dagger‘s Olivia Holt). Jeanette gets her wish — and much more than she bargained for — as she seemingly takes over Kate’s life when the other girl goes missing. As each twisty installment explores Jeanette’s possible connection to Kate’s disappearance, the drama goes all-in on the idea that “there’s a very thin line between being a hero and being a villain, or being a victim and being a villain,” showrunner Tia Napolitano says.
“We looked to women in the ’90s who kind of got skewered in the media,” Napolitano continues. “We looked to Monica Lewinsky or Lorena Bobbitt… they were pure villains in the media. That’s it, one side to the story. With Cruel Summer, we get to live with these actual human beings and learn that the reality is much more of a gray area than just a black-and-white hero/villain story.”
With each episode taking placing over one summer day in three different years — 1993, 1994 and 1995 — the show’s characters are constantly changing, leaving viewers to wonder where the truth lies. “There’s a huge evolution for Jeanette,” Aurelia says. “She is starting the show out [with] childlike excitement, leading into a more grown-up and pressurized version of popularity, and then into a more sad and depressed, dark time in her life.”
Meanwhile, the Kate that the audience first meets in ’93 appears to have the perfect life, complete with a wealthy family, a hot boyfriend and a group of loyal friends. “Kate represents for Jeanette what she aspires to and what she wants to be,” Aurelia shares. “Kate is someone that she really admires and she looks up to and she thinks is beautiful and fabulous in every way.” But as Episode 2 switches to Kate’s point of view, “you’ll see the cracks and the reality, and nothing’s ever as perfect as it looks,” Napolitano notes.
The season then continues to alternate between the two girls’ POVs during those three pivotal years. “The way that the storytelling happens is very unique,” Holt raves. “I’ve never seen anything like that in television before, and it’s just so captivating and mesmerizing in its own way.”
The show’s female-centric story and “nostalgic” ’90s setting, with its spaghetti strap dresses, butterfly hair clips and dial-up Internet, also drew in Napolitano, who came on board as showrunner after the pilot, which was written/created by Bert V. Royal (Recovery Road, Easy A).
“There are a lot of throwbacks. Cruel Summer is a time machine, and it transports you right back there,” Napolitano describes. Additionally, the time period presented some welcome challenges, in that “people don’t have smartphones, people don’t even really have cell phones. Maybe if you were really wealthy, you had a car phone. But you can’t just whip out your GPS, you can’t track someone or text someone or Google anything on the fly. So that made it very compelling as far as a setting for a mystery show.”
But Napolitano’s favorite aspect of recreating the ’90s? “It was definitely the music,” she says. The show’s trailer (see below) and the premiere prominently feature Garbage’s “Stupid Girl,” and each subsequent episode includes at least one iconic ’90s tune. Some of the song gets even shocked Napolitano. “We got [The Cranberries’] ‘Zombie,’ which was phenomenal!” she exclaims. “And we got ‘What’s Up?’ by 4 Non Blondes, which we were told we’ll never get it — Linda Perry never clears anything — and we got it, so that is really exciting to me.”
For the young cast, however, some elements of the ’90s proved to be a little mystifying. “I didn’t know how to work a Walkman,” Holt admits. “I was like, ‘This thing is massive. How do you do this?’ So I had a lot of people have to explain to me what it was and how to work it.”