Cruel Summer is officially an anthology show, which means every season features a new mystery with a new cast of characters. In many ways, this makes it very similar to a limited show, which is arguably the greatest thing a mystery show can be. For audiences, it means there’s a definite episode where the killer gets revealed and all the important questions get answered. For writers, it means they can plan out the show with a definite ending in mind, and not have to worry about extending their story through an unknown number of seasons.
However, Cruel Summer being an anthology does mean each season has to follow a couple of rules in order for the show to have certain common threads between different stories. So far, the rules for this one seem to be that each season needs to alternate between three different timelines, and at least one of those timelines needs to take place during the summer.
Cruel Summer’s second season alternates between the summer of 1999, the winter of 1999, and the summer of 2000. In the summer of 1999, two teenagers named Megan (Sadie Stanley) and Luke (Griffin Gluck) show the new girl Isabella (Lexi Underwood) around town, and while Megan initially dislikes her, Luke and Isabella soon find themselves dating. In the winter of 1999, Megan and Luke are now the ones dating and Isabella has become her best friend. In the summer of 2000, Luke is found dead, and Isabella tells Megan, “We have to get our story straight.”
That statement from Isabella sounds like pretty sound advice for both the two girls and the writers themselves, because oh my, this season is messy. The storytelling device of alternating between three timelines might’ve fit the first season well, but in this one, it comes across as forced, like the story was shoehorned to fit the storytelling rather than the two naturally complimenting each other.
One big problem is that the summer of 1999 is mostly devoted to developing Megan and Isabella’s friendship, but we already know these two are going to become best friends. The winter of 1999 already told us so, and while seeing their friendship grow is occasionally endearing, there’s no point to most of it because we already know how close these two become in the future. It largely just feels like padding or a way to keep the first timeline interesting as not much is really going on here in regard to the mystery.
Here’s another way the storytelling gets in the way of good writing: the winter of 1999 desperately wants to convince us that Megan and Isabella are, in fact, best friends. This is probably because the two have an emotional wall between them during 1999’s summer, so winter is meant to show how much their relationship has changed.
The thing about fictional friendships, though, is that you usually don’t need to do that much to convince us two characters are best friends. Everyone watching has most likely already experienced best friendship — we’ve been there, we know how this works. The writers, however, have the two act so cloyingly during the winter whenever they’re together, constantly reciting the phrase “ride or die” like it’s the spell that keeps their friendship alive.
It’s even more frustrating when you remember this is an anthology show, meaning these characters aren’t coming back for another season. Precious time that could be spent leaving clues, investigating suspects, and building tension between characters is now spent indulging in a Sisterhood of Traveling Pants pseudo-sequel. Cruel Summer’s second season feels like a mystery that constantly gets interrupted by filler coming-of-age scenes.
Another reason why this season’s mystery disappoints is that Luke isn’t interesting enough to make us care who killed him. Pretty Little Liars was far from a good show, but it at least did something right to hook viewers from the very start — it made Alison, the murder victim, an extremely believable target. She was the high school queen bee who knew everyone’s secrets, bullied people in passive-aggressive ways, and was vicious when it came to getting what she wanted. Of course someone would want to kill her.
Luke, on the other hand, is such a boring character, I struggle to understand why someone would go to the effort of murdering him. Mysteries thrive on believable motives, and while Luke doesn’t need to be a terrible person in order for someone to want to kill him, he’s got to have a strong enough presence that multiple people would have such strong feelings for or against him. Luke is mostly just there as Megan’s friend or boyfriend, and most of the tension comes from him being in those roles.
Does Isabella want to kill Luke because he gets in the way of her and Megan’s friendship? Does Megan want to kill him because she’s jealous of his past relationship with Isabella? These reasons turn Luke into a pawn that the writers constantly move and position in ways that strain his relationship with both Megan and Isabella, regardless of how natural these actions are to his character.
It also means Megan and Isabella are the only interesting suspects, as you can tell certain other characters are just there to be red herrings from the minute they’re introduced. If anyone else wanted to murder Luke, their motives certainly weren’t developed well, and they pretty much disappear when the show doesn’t need them anymore.
I wish Cruel Summer’s second season got better treatment because, on paper, it’s a pretty solid idea: a mystery showcasing how a friendship can be just as obsessive and dangerous as a romantic relationship. Unfortunately, this season spends too much time focusing on the wrong things and feels imprisoned by the things that made Cruel Summer’s first season such a hit. It may be a cruel summer for Megan, Isabella, and Luke, but it’s a pretty plodding summer for the rest of us.
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Cruel Summer's second season fails to give viewers a gripping mystery or a murder victim worth caring about, and the characteristics that made the first season so addictive now feel restrictive and unnecessary.
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