The series unfolds over a series of days in 1993, 1994 and 1995, briskly oscillating among them in each episode — as events move along, remaining a year or two apart — while dropping clue after clue in a series of mysteries.
At the core of it all is Jeanette (Chiara Aurelia), a shy girl with braces when we first meet her on her 15th birthday, a confident and transformed one a year later, and a dour figure under suspicion by the police the year after that. Her fate is inextricably tied to that of Kate (Olivia Holt, graduating from Disney Channel fare), beautiful and popular, who is abducted and missing in the second year, and dealing with the fallout and psychological aftermath of that in the third.
Still, the focus is not only on the two girls, but those around them, including friends and parents, whose relationships have been jumbled in head-spinning ways as well from year to year.
Frankly, one could easily do without another show that involves the victimization of a teenage girl, and “Cruel Summer” incorporates warnings for those who might be unsettled by that scenario. Yet the device largely works as a set-up to explore, primarily, Jeanette’s evolution, which, thanks to Aurelia’s impressive performance, somehow manages to feel like an almost completely different character in each of the years visited.
Occasionally, the right show comes along in the wrong venue, which in TV terms can become its own cruel twist of fate. For now, though, the four previewed episodes continue to deliver unexpected turns and crumbs of information, planting the hook deep enough to sustain curiosity about where all this is heading, with the disclaimer that the aforementioned dramas ran out of creative gas pretty quickly.
As pass-the-popcorn diversions go, that’s about as solid an endorsement — given misgivings about the subject matter — as “Cruel Summer” could hope to elicit.
“Cruel Summer” premieres April 20 at 9 p.m. on Freeform.