There’s a cliche that claims that every cell in the body regenerates after about seven years, which begs the question, are we still the people we were in 2014 if not a single one of our 2021 cells existed in 2014? In the case of Jeanette, the protagonist of Cruel Summer, this regeneration process seems to be accelerated exponentially. In episode one we see her on three different days: June 21, 1993, 1994 and 1995. But in each of these three years we come across a very different Jeanette. In the first year, she is a misfit teenager, invisible to her peers. On the following June 21, she has become the most popular kid in high school, but with an eerily similar style to Kate Wallis, a girl who has disappeared. Finally, a year later, she has become one of the most hated people in the United States, due to an event curiously enough, associated with the disappearance of, … you guessed it, Wallis!
Behind these sudden personality changes is the creators’ desire to explore the changes experimented during adolescence and this group’s vulnerability to social pressure. Is Jeanette really the monster the media would have us believe? The series is the work of screenwriter and playwright Bert V. Royal, whose specialty is dealing with this passage from childhood to youth. Born in Colorado 43 years ago, his first success was the play ‘Dog sees God: Confessions of a teenage blockhead’, with which he managed to attract the attention of the Off-Broadway circuit in 2005. In addition to theatrical productions, he has also worked in the world of cinema, having written the script for the movie ‘Easy A’. This time around in ‘Cruel Summer’, he brought on Jessica Biel as producer. Initially, the series premiered on American cable television, but the excellent audience share data sparked Amazon to buy it to offer the world over.
The story is not particularly groundbreaking: we’re in the familiar terrain of high schools and the horrendous concept of popularity, probably the most powerful monetary unit in this microcosm, which decides the value of each individual and their position in the pyramid. The approach is hackneyed, but the fact that the mothers end up playing such an important role – and these are no ordinary mothers let me tell you – allows us to elevate the discourse and address the contribution of adults in creating insecure, traumatized and often petty young people.
But if the issues might seem conventional, the form stands out as the principal distinctive feature and driving force behind the series. Although not narrated chronologically, each episode features an examination of the same day of the three consecutive years mentioned. This game of temporal hopscotch allows us to draw inconspicuous lines between cause and effect: an apparently futile detail from 1993 ends up completely marking Jeanette from 1994 and the juxtaposition of scenes helps to underline it. Temporal fragmentation is not the only fracture presented to audiences: ‘Cruel Summer’ also alternates points of view. Without being as radical as ‘The Affair’, where an identical scene was repeated, albeit with eloquent variations. Here, Kate Wallis also has the opportunity to explain the story from her point of view. And to showcase her misfortunes. It’s the viewer who has to decide how the pieces fit together. If they fit, of course. Our first instinct is to assign one of the two victim status, but as the series progresses, and as the screenwriting molds our perspective, it ends up becoming clear that, in reality, the two are the product of the same reality: a hypocritical society.
The other explicit position ‘Cruel Summer’ aspires to occupy is that of vindicating the nineties. The series is loaded with references that seek to wink at the viewer: Do you remember when we connected to the Internet using a noisy modem? Do you remember the lumberjack shirts? Once the revival of the 80s had apparently been exhausted – and with the permission of Stranger Things – the time has come now to examine the following decade, when abundance and colors gave way to disenchantment and cynicism. The first connection with those years is, predictably, the soundtrack, which includes some of the musical hymns of that period, by bands and soloists such as Garbage, The Cranberries, Susan Voelz, Tiger Trap or Mazzy Star.
‘Cruel Summer’ will hardly make much of a showing on any end-of-year best series list, but, despite the fact that it doesn’t risk much beyond the formal devices, it is an honest product that delves into adolescent angst without the condescension present in so many other shows that deal with this convulsive stage of life.