The stakes have grown. Time is running out. And for the characters that inhabit the slightly twisted, duplicitous world of Cruel Summer, this means potentially more than just kidnapping. It could mean murder. For Megan and Isabella, only the viewers could determine who would emerge free and who would vanish in handcuffs. Although rotten tomatoes and fans have taken a few confusing scenes in Cruel Summer to task, by and large, the overwhelmingly positive reviews prove that teens’ and tweens murder mysteries can be a safe bet.
Cruel Summer was an unexpected hit, and despite its non-adult-oriented teen fare, its record-setting viewership was well-deserved. Original concepts alongside older tropes told in a new way spelled out success for Freeform, Hulu, and Disney+, whereas other, more bland attempts at murder mystery (think CW’s Nancy Drew) simply faded into obscurity. We’re going to break down the reasons why.
Secrets of Season One
The central enigma surrounding Cruel Summer, a show involving several high school friendships gone wayward, ultimately leading to the kidnapping of a girl, was compelling as well as original. Season one also bragged of strong performances that landed high-concept storytelling following the same set of characters through three distinct points during a mystery. Cruel Summer’s first season was a hit for Freeform, the Disney-owned cable channel known for its teen-centric fare, and its record-setting viewership was well-deserved.
The show unravels a riddle non-linearly, with each episode showing parts of the story from a different point in time. Cruel Summer slowly revealed important pieces of information through this method to the viewer at an almost unconscious level. This strategy of unraveling the puzzle could have easily flown off the rails, yet the show made it work well.
The Teenager’s Version of Yellowjackets
Now that enthusiasts of Cruel Summer know that it was Isabella who murdered Brent, has it taken away from the enjoyment of the mystery of the show? Similar to how Twin Peaks seemed to forfeit viewership among its die-hard fans after revealing the show’s culprit, it’s logical to assume Cruel Summer will have lost some of its formerly massive fan clout.
Originally taking its cue from the massive and unexpected success of YellowJackets, Producer Elle Triedman – and other showrunners – knew that if a time-shifting, multiple-viewpoint perspective mystery revolving around multiple characters, couldn’t a teen show pull it off as well?
Season Two’s Alternate Ending?
Throughout season 2 of Freeform’s anthology teen drama, viewers wondered who killed Luke (Griffin Gluck). And just like in the first season finale, the last scene featured a massive twist that not only reframed but revealed everything fans believed they understood about this murder mystery.
While it seemed like Luke’s older brother Brent (Braeden De La Garza) killed Luke accidentally when Brent was shoved off the dock on New Year’s, it turned out that Brent survived and then made it to shore in need of serious medical help. It was at this moment that Isabella (Lexi Underwood) discovered him. But instead of saving Brent, Isabella forced his head back under the water to drown him – delivering the final act of murder.
While Isabella thought she got away with murder and skipped town, making a new friend, a.k.a. potential future victim on her flight to Ibiza, Megan (Sadie Stanley) discovered a secret security camera facing the dock where Luke had been killed six months earlier. The final scene of the season showed Megan hacking into the feed to watch her best friend murder her boyfriend—a very modern take on a murder mystery resolution.
Producers had different potential killers before landing on Isabella. It didn’t take long, yet they went down many avenues with other characters. Surprisingly, Debbie was a possibility; something fans wouldn’t see coming. Brent, obviously Steve, and the girls together – the writers wanted an ending surprising and hopefully simultaneously satisfying.
Producer Elle Triedman has said of Cruel Summer‘s variant endings: “What I was really happy with about it was, it was a moment with the girls together, and even though they’re not physically together, they still experience it together because the viewer is in the water with Isabella – and then the camera pulls out to reveal Megan watching it in real-time.”
What of the future? What of Isabella and Megan? Will there be a season three? Despite some negative reviews for season two of Cruel Summer, fans have made it clear that they love the high theater of this incredibly immersive murder drama. Freeform and Hulu, knowing they have a winner on their hands, would be hard-pressed to let another Cruel Summer pass without pacifying their multitudinous fans!