Don’t you just love it when Freeform comes through with a completely bonkers teen thriller? My current obsession is Cruel Summer, a deliciously bingeable new series created by Bert V. Royal, best known for writing the 2010 teen comedy Easy A. In today’s glut of trash TV, Cruel Summer’s premise feels genuinely fresh and compelling, even if I’m not quite sure how they’ll manage to pull it all off.
Every episode takes place on the same day over three years — 1993, 1994, and 1995 — allowing for some fun throwback costuming: the girls in slip dresses over white T-shirts, the boys rocking baby Leo DiCaprio’s floppy hair. The drama starts when beloved popular girl Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) suddenly goes missing. In the year she’s gone, awkward misfit Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) somehow manages to take over Kate’s life: She starts dating Kate’s boyfriend, becomes friends with her friends. And then there’s the twist: Kate is found alive — she had been abducted by the new vice principal and held hostage in his basement — and she accuses Jeanette of knowing that Kate had been abducted but, because she was busy taking over Kate’s life, refused to report it. Jeanette, who flat-out denies Kate’s charges, goes from being the new most popular girl at school to the most reviled person in America. So who’s really telling the truth?
I’m a little worried about how the show is going to depict the horrors of Kate’s abduction and imprisonment, especially for teen audiences. So far we don’t know much about what happened to her in that basement, and I kind of hope it stays that way? The show is dark, obviously, but I don’t want it to get too dark. This is escapist TV, after all. —Shannon Keating
Where to watch: Freeform on Hulu
Mare of Easttown
I wouldn’t say Kate Winslet is particularly convincing as a hard-living small-town detective (you can take her makeup off all you want — she’s still hot!), but there is indeed something refreshing about letting a woman, for once, be the miserable, chain-smoking (in this case, chain-Juuling, the future has truly arrived) brooding detective. Moody like True Detective but significantly less droning, Mare of Easttown follows Mare (Winslet) as she investigates the disappearances and murders of a few young women in her claustrophobically tiny town in Pennsylvania, all while trying to get over her son’s suicide, raising her daughter and grandson, and, who knows, maybe going on a few dates with a visiting writer (Guy Pearce) or possibly her partner (Evan Peters). Unlike other shows of its ilk, Mare of Easttown is propulsive, engaging, and legitimately dramatic television, the kind where your mouth might rest agape for a scene or two. There are no endless monologues to pretend to listen to, no heavy-handed metaphors (yet), and with a largely female cast, the show’s perspective is more nuanced and emotionally devastating than other shows like it. Plus, I’m not sure there’s another program around that gets at the infuriating and depressing fact that living in a small town means everyone’s in your shit, all the time, no matter what. But yeah, the Pennsylvania accents are absurd. Is that really how they say “water?” Wow. —Scaachi Koul
Where to watch: HBO and HBO Max
Shadow and Bone
Here’s the thing: I love Ben Barnes. I love his skinny pale Englishness. I love his ability to play tortured men (Westworld, The Punisher). I love that his Instagram bio says “Lover of Life, Singer of Songs.” So that was my way into Shadow and Bone, the Netflix fantasy series based on the bestselling YA novels by Leigh Bardugo.
Others may have trouble getting into the show. In eight episodes, it tells three interweaving stories; it’s fairly snappy, but also leaves out a lot of backstory and explanation. You might need a map and/or a glossary. But if you want a sufficiently gripping Chosen One–type story infused with magic and twists that you can watch in a weekend, this will do the trick.
The series follows Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) and Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux). Best friends since they grew up together at an orphanage, they face possible separation when Mal is assigned a deadly mission: to head into the Fold, a shadowy zone where monsters threaten to tear up anyone who dares to pass. Unwilling to leave him, Alina follows Mal, and a surprising discovery on the journey changes their lives forever: She has the fabled power to harness the sun’s rays and potentially destroy the Fold forever. Barnes plays General Kirigan, the tortured (see?) leader of the Second Army, a force made up of the magical Grisha. Kirigan wants Alina by his side for his own purposes; meanwhile, a trio of thieves — Kaz (Freddy Carter), Jesper (Kit Young), and Inej (Amita Suman) — connive to kidnap her for financial gain.
Rousing fights, great visuals, and a cast full of charming unknowns make this a good way to while away a few hours. Plus, there’s a magical stag. I went from annoyance to begrudging enjoyment to downright investment by the penultimate episode. Don’t worry about the plot. You’ll figure it out. —Estelle Tang
Where to watch: Netflix
Once a girl power pop group à la the Spice Girls in the ‘90s, the four still-living members of Girls5eva are trying to return to their former glory after a young rapper samples one of their songs in this sweet-hearted sitcom from Tina Fey protégé Meredith Scardino. There’s Dawn (Sara Bareilles), a harried mom who works at her brother’s restaurant; Summer (Busy Philipps), the ditzy one who lives in New Jersey and has auditioned for Real Housewives “like eight times”; Gloria (Paula Pell), a dour dentist still getting over her breakup; and Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry), the egomaniac of the group who tried to launch a solo career but who actually works at an airport. Together, the four of them attempt to turn back time. Much of the fun of the show lies in its homages to the late ’90s and aughts pop culture (via lots of flashbacks to fake appearances on TRL and MTV Cribs). The songs themselves are catchy too, though Goldsberry, a Broadway veteran, doesn’t quite have the right kind of voice to be a believable pop star.
While this show doesn’t quite match the spot-on hilarity of The Other Two, another entertainment industry spoof now streaming on HBO Max (and whose second season I am eagerly awaiting!), Girls5eva is not a bad way to spend your evenings. —Tomi Obaro
Where to watch: Peacock (first episode is free; then you can do a seven-day trial!)
Married at First Sight (Season 12)
During the pandemic, I have watched more reality TV than I care to admit and, for the first time in my life, have gone down the dark path of watching hours and hours (sometimes 52 hours) of dating shows. Last week, 15 minutes of my therapy session was devoted to trying to explain the premise of my latest obsession, Married at First Sight, to my perplexed therapist. It’s as stupid as it sounds. Five couples meet for the first time at the altar on their wedding day and must spend the next two months getting to know each other under forced and increasingly uncomfortable circumstances. By the end of the eight weeks, the couples must decide if they want to stay together or get divorced. Contestants are usually people in their late twenties or early thirties who are sick of dating and terrified of ending up alone. But these couples are not forced into matrimony at random. No, after filling out an exhaustive questionnaire, they are paired by three “relationship experts” including a pastor, a marriage counselor, and a woman named Dr. Pepper.
I’ve watched a few seasons of the show and can tell you that the newest season is populated by couples who absolutely should not be together under any circumstances. It’s as if the “experts” have finally accepted that a social experiment populated by desperate people will only end badly and have leaned all the way into simply traumatizing women for entertainment. (Perhaps watching women being gaslighted by underdeveloped manchildren who can’t understand why they’re still single might be triggering for you!) Listen, I don’t hate this show. I actually can’t stop watching it because this cringefest is a perfect lesson in what not to do in relationships. Everyone’s worst behavior is on display, and yet these strangers keep fighting because they want to be in love so badly! And perhaps more so, they’re terrified of the stigma of divorce. (What year is it???) It’s a fascinating cultural study, but to quote my therapist, “How can they stay together when there’s no foundation to build their relationship on?” The question of whether or not they’ll toss their lives away for someone they just met is exactly what makes the show so compelling to watch. —Karolina Waclawiak
Where to watch: Lifetime ●