“The Summer I Turned Pretty” successfully balances cliché with complexity as a new summer-escape show

Aug. 14, 2022, 7:43 p.m.

“The Summer I Turned Pretty,” a screen adaptation of the young adult book series of the same name, quickly catapulted to number one on Amazon Prime Video after its June 17 release. The novels, written by Jenny Han — creator of the hit “To All The Boys” trilogy-turned-film franchise — are well-loved by fans. All three novels were at one point number one on the New York Times bestseller list. At the center of the series is 15-year-old Isabel “Belly” Conklin, who returns to fictional Cousins Beach to spend the summer with her mother and older brother Steven. They are joined by family friends: mother Susannah “Beck” Fisher and her two sons, Conrad and Jeremiah. While the crux of the story is a love triangle between Belly, Conrad and Jeremiah, the show delves into coming-of-age themes, touching on heavier topics such as illness and loss, through its seven-episode run.

At first glance, its popularity may seem unfounded. Love triangles can feel outdated and cliché, particularly when centering on two brothers, one with a stereotypical older and protective personality and the other being younger and more adventurous. “The Summer I Turned Pretty” subverts the simplicity of the story, by focusing more on what makes the series special — Belly is the shining center of the series and its success, despite the appeal of the chiseled, endearing love interests.

Actress Lola Tung brings a natural charisma and joy to Belly’s character, immediately rendering her likable and relatable to the audience. Belly knows what she wants and is determined to get it. She spends her summer how she wants to, resisting pressure from her mother, Laurel, and even her love interests. It’s easy to root for Belly, and, over time, the series builds both admiration and empathy for her. When Steven is upset by the fact that she is pursuing Jeremiah despite her childhood crush on Conrad, Belly tells him off, explaining that she is the one making decisions about her love life, not anyone else. The moment is satisfying, particularly in light of Belly’s experiences with Conrad, where her emotions come second to his.

She doesn’t hog the screen, either: there’s plenty of room in the narrative to feature a strong supporting cast. Among the most compelling characters are Laurel, played by Jackie Chung, and Susannah, played by Rachel Blanchard. As childhood friends, their bond and love for one another is the foundation of their childrens’ summers in Cousins, and the chemistry between them is as warm and believable as lifelong companions. Watching them order Long Island iced teas and relive their college days at a local bar was genuinely heartwarming, a perfectly bittersweet moment in light of Susannah’s battle with cancer.

Additionally, the love triangle works in part due to how equally matched the two brothers are. For viewers who had not read the books, it may not have been clear who Belly will end up with, and this lends a little weight to the emotional stakes of the romantic drama. Both brothers are likable and unlikable as the narrative progresses, and it’s easy to understand Belly’s seemingly fickle approach to her romances with each. You love Jeremiah for his lighthearted personality, yet you can’t help wondering what would happen if he hadn’t distracted Belly and Conrad with a firework to prevent them from kissing. After a series of flashbacks, audiences can swoon over the meaning behind the infinity necklace that Conrad buys for Belly, but the fact that he didn’t give it to her still stings. The show transcends a fatal weakness of most love triangles — the idea that it’s obvious who will actually be together by the end of the story — by maintaining what makes both Conrad and Jeremiah’s romantic arcs complex.

While the story buoys the show into being enjoyable, its distinctive atmosphere is just as important to the overall viewing experience. A vital aspect of what makes “The Summer I Turned Pretty” memorable is how immersive it feels, and it accomplishes that through music.

The series is notably supported by a soundtrack chock full of popular artists and songs. Everything from Wheatus to BLACKPINK features throughout the seven episodes. It’s almost impressive how many hits fit into the show without their inclusion feeling forced or overbearing. Taylor Swift, who re-recorded “This Love” to appear on the soundtrack, has a noticeable influence on the show itself. The inclusion of her work feels built-in, almost too good to be true. Han has spoken about Swift’s influence on the novels, and it comes through in how natural the inclusion of songs, such as “False God” and “The Way I Loved You (Taylor’s Version),” feels.  “Beach Baby” by Bon Iver and “Funeral” by Phoebe Bridgers act as perfect backdrops for the series’ more emotional scenes, and are effective in tugging on viewers’ heartstrings. Given that a majority of the music in the show is very popular, it’s easy to see that the series will serve as an auditory time capsule upon future rewatches.

Another win for the series is the immersiveness of its setting, Cousins Beach. The fact that it is a fictional town is easily forgettable when presented with the picture-perfect beaches, nautical-themed home decor and distinctly northeastern bonfire parties and backroads. It feels like a place you know, or at least one that you’ve been told about before in a recount of an idyllic summer vacation.

Cousins is to the audience what it is to the characters themselves: an escape from reality. While maintaining a beachy, watchable atmosphere, the series affords viewers glimpses of the darker aspects of the characters’ lives. It balances teenage innocence with grief, coming-of-age with coming-to-terms. This emotional weight helps “The Summer I Turned Pretty” stick the landing and capture viewers’ attention. Already greenlit for a second season on Amazon Prime Video, the series has the potential to grow and blossom, with two more books of material to cover and a growing fanbase eager for more summers spent in Cousins. 

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Carolyn Mish is a high school student writing for The Daily's summer journalism workshop.

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