There’s just something different about Texas crime. It could be the heat—never-ending summers and claustrophobic humidity that push people over the edge. Or maybe it’s the social pressure, the need to keep up appearances in small towns where families have known one another for decades. Whatever it is, under the veneer of Southern charm lurks an outlaw mentality that can push a mother to kill her daughter’s cheerleading rival, a privileged teenager to poison her father, or a perfectly unremarkable accountant to embezzle millions from a small-town bakery.
But despite a wealth of inspiration, it’s relatively rare for a fictional crime thriller to be set in Texas. Cruel Summer, a soapy teenage drama premiering on Freeform on April 20, sets itself apart as the rare dark mystery series that’s not only set in the state but filmed here.
Shot over the course of six months in Dallas, the show takes place over three summers in the early nineties. Each episode jumps back and forth among three days, the same date in 1993, 1994, and 1995, in the fictional town of Skylin, Texas. In the pilot, we’re introduced to high schoolers Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt), a blonde with all the popularity that cliché entails, and Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia), a dorky outcast who takes Kate’s social position (and her boyfriend) after Kate disappears.
Rather than keep its viewers in suspense, the pilot reveals Kate’s captor before the episode is out; the show isn’t concerned with how Kate was kidnapped or by whom. Instead, the mystery centers on what happened when she went missing, and the differing stories that emerge when she reappears.
By the summer of 1995, Jeanette, suspected of being involved in Kate’s disappearance and swallowed up in an Amanda Knox–style media blitz, has become the most hated woman in the country. As the season progresses, the episodes switch perspectives between the characters to reveal hidden motives, clues, and lies. It’s a fun setup, and one that makes the drama stand out among other dark teen thrillers like Pretty Little Liars and Riverdale.
It also leaves Holt and Aurelia with the difficult task of alternating between completely different versions of their characters. For Holt, that means playing Kate as a sweet queen bee, then as a shell-shocked young victim returning to daily life, and finally as a broken, hardened teenager. Aurelia masterfully transforms Jeanette from a naive and nerdy young girl to someone bitter and manipulative. Each addictive episode casts doubt on those former selves, making the viewer question whether either of them were ever as innocent as they seemed—and high schoolers on teen soaps so rarely are.
At a recent South by Southwest panel, executive producer Jessica Biel confirmed that the lead actors didn’t know how the season would end until they started shooting. “What we’re asking these girls to do is so hard,” said Biel. “Usually you know where you’re going in your performance, but they don’t have that, they’re working off a question mark, so giving the performances they’re giving without this knowledge is incredible.”
Because Georgia, Louisiana, and New Mexico have more robust film incentive programs, it’s become common for films and TV shows to either take place in those states or to shoot there for projects set in Texas. In Cruel Summer, the plot doesn’t particularly turn on its setting in Skylin, or even Texas. But it’s easy to imagine Skylin as any number of small, affluent towns across the state.
Not everyone speaks with a Southern drawl (which is true of real Texans, too), and brief references to Whataburger and Dairy Queen and the occasional appearance of a cowboy hat do a more convincing job than other shows—like the recent FX series A Teacher—of making it seem like the creators are familiar with Texas.
What will be most recognizable, especially for viewers like me who went to high school in small-town Texas, are the dynamics at play between Skylin’s parents. Even as adults, the parents in town are still clinging to their high school days, constantly reliving and comparing themselves with the cheerleaders, jocks, and nerds that they were as teens. It’s a society obsessed with status, where the town’s deepest secrets are whispered behind closed doors, rather than yelled in public. In Skylin, everyone knows everyone—which becomes a liability when Kate’s mother, ever the hostess, welcomes her daughter’s future kidnapper to their annual barbecue.
The show’s teenagers are often left trying to step out of the shadow of their parents’ legacies. For Kate, that means realizing that her debutante, appearance-driven mother isn’t as perfect as she seems. And for Jeanette, it means struggling to come into her own with a mother who was once the most popular girl in school.
Cruel Summer dives into dark territory of abuse and trauma without seeming exploitative, making for an interesting setup to what could be a promising season. But by the end of the first four episodes, it doesn’t quite feel as though they’ve made the most of the Texas backdrop. In the world of teen dramas, it’s not quite groundbreaking, but the tangled web of lies is complicated enough to leave you wanting more.