“Cruel Summer” & an Introspection into the Teen Mystery Dramas

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T R O P E – T E E N  D R A M A

Raya Mehnaz

It seems as if it was only yesterday when Pretty Little Liars appeared on our screens and took our breath away with its scandalous twists and turns. As it turns out, Pretty Little Liars premiered more than a decade earlier and never seemed to lose its place as television’s most gripping teen mystery, despite the efforts of many similar shows. However, with the arrival of Cruel Summer on Freeform, it seems as if the shenanigans of the four liars are finally on their way to be dethroned. Cruel Summer tells the story of a girl who goes missing in her small town and how the people in her orbit react to that tragedy. Moving the narrative in the careful depiction of a single day over three summers, the show has already won the hearts of drama as well as true crime enthusiasts.

While it may be too soon to call Cruel Summer the worthy contender to the notoriety of Pretty Little Liars considering Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why have also made use of similar storytelling tropes to move the story forward and ended up coming short. Nevertheless, there is a careful deliberation in the way Cruel Summer has been unraveling the central mystery that is eerily similar to that of Pretty Little Liars. Be it the similar colour palettes, or how the storyline revolves around two women and their respective journeys, or even the blunt acknowledgment of the plight of young adults in a town that looks rosy and cheerful only to turn out to be the hovel of predatory adults and careless violence.

Despite mocking undertones of teenage angst and melodrama, there is no shortage of ways such teen shows have acted as a mirror of sorts to the society with their handy tropes and themes, and with the fortunate arrival of Cruel Summer, it cannot hurt to look into similar tropes used in these shows to get their point across. 

The Ezra Fitz Phenomenon

This phenomenon refers to the rabid inclusion of Teacher/Student relationships in teen mysteries, lovingly named after the ickiest participant of one such relationship, Ezra Fitz of Pretty Little Liars. Not just teen mysteries, teen shows, in general, have criminally overused this phenomenon to the point of gross romanticisation. From the veteran One Tree Hill to Gossip Girl, Riverdale, most inappropriately Pretty Little Liars have all used some modicum of this trope, with PLL going as far as making one such relationship end in a fairytale wedding. Whereas all these dramas have time and time again justified their portrayal of “a different kind of romance”, Cruel Summer managed to turn the stereotype in its head and made the inklings of such plot twists ominous and terrifying. It was clear in its execution that the central teenage characters were not pursued by their older counterparts in a feat of forbidden romance but in a transparent attempt at child grooming. 

Death by Love Triangles

A storytelling trope that has been done exhaustively since the rise of Twilight, Love Triangles need no introduction. A perfunctory staple in teen dramas that was popularised by Dawson’s Creek decades earlier and still manages to find itself within the strictest of the teenage dramas. Cruel Summer, however, manages to elevate its central triangle from those of its other contemporaries. For example, Cruel Summer narrates its story from the perspective of two young women. These two teenagers, while strangers at first, seem to find their life tangled when one of them goes missing only to find the other had taken over her life, her friends and her boyfriend. When looking at this recurring plotline in other dramas, it seems that love triangles are almost indistinguishably merged with infidelity and general ugliness of teenage relationships, taking into consideration the infamous Stefan-Elena-Damon triangle from the Vampire Diaries that ended with Elena cheating on Stefan, as well as the multiple unnecessary and problematic ways Riverdale tried to incorporate its many love triangles with the Archie-Betty-Veronica-Jughead quad. 

Heaven on Earth = American Suburbia

Problematic and uneven relationship dynamics aside, teen mystery shows from all over have used their common settings to make use of different family relations in televisions. When analysing the relatively generic settings of the mystical towns of Rosewood or Riverdale or even Cruel Summer’s Skylin, they seemed to be crafted from the same small town formula. From their predominantly white residents to picket fences and neighbourhood block parties within the haze of good American suburban heaven, these small towns are home to all sorts of formulaic secrets which are set to come undone in a fit of storytelling climax. Maybe it comes undone with the help of a teenage detective such as the case in Veronica Mars, or with the help of plot devices such as the tapes from Hannah in 13 Reasons Why. In Cruel Summer’s mysterious town of Skylin at the heart of Texas, the plot device was a defamation lawsuit that drove the narrative in discovering the “objective truth” of the town.

Regardless of the aforementioned tropes and plot points, teen mystery shows have often weaponised their widespread appeal to speak out against many issues that young people on the cusp of their adulthood face, be it social anxiety, or bullying, or even parental negligence. Maybe because of these reasons, Pretty Little Liars, a decade earlier, and Cruel Summer right now are getting recognised and, subsequently, revered, despite their position in the critical totem pole.


Raya likes to critically analyse anything regarding pop culture, and when she’s not doing that, she likes to live life dangerously — one House MD episode at a time.

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