Immediately as the first two episodes of Freeform's newest series premiered on April 20, fans everywhere had one question: Is Cruel Summer based on a true story? The series has all the trappings of a true-crime documentary, and with so many historic cases being turned into films and shows, it makes sense to wonder whether the suspenseful story actually happened IRL.
Warning: Light spoilers for Cruel Summer Episodes 1 and 2 follow. The series, which is executive produced by Jessica Biel, follows two very different teen girls wrapped up in a national scandal. After a popular girl named Kate (Olivia Holt) goes missing, a formerly shy girl named Jeanette (Chiara Aurelia) is accused of being involved in her disappearance. Things are especially suspicious since Jeanette mysteriously gained popularity and the love of Kate's boyfriend after Kate went MIA. However, once Kate names Jeanette as a person of interest in the case, Jeanette goes from social butterfly to one of the most detested people in the country.
As the series unfolds, it's clear this isn't a classic "whodunnit" case. “Initially, you think this could be a girl versus girl story," Biel said at a SXSW panel in March. "But it really is completely about a difference of perspective, your truth versus someone else's truth.”
All that said, the Texas-set story is fictional. In an effort to compete with shows like The CW's Riverdale, Freeform is focusing on "higher concept" Gen Z series, with Cruel Summer leading the charge. Considering the plot centers around teenage popularity, a mysterious disappearance, and hidden truths, it looks like Freeform is on the right track.
As for the show's setting in the 1990s? That was a nostalgic choice for a lot of the creatives. Since Biel grew up in the '90s, it was a fun way to lean into her past. And considering the show takes place over the span of 1993, 1994, and 1995, fun elements like pagers, Walkmans, and dial-up internet are seen front and center. But will the specific timing play a a more important role in the case as the details surrounding Kate's kidnapping become more clear? Fans will have to wait and see.
New episodes of Cruel Summer Season 1 air on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on Freeform. The episodes drop on Hulu the following day.