I went into The Summer I Turned Pretty thinking I knew how it was going to go. I hadn’t read Jenny Han’s books, but I gleaned enough from the description to predict what Prime Video’s summer teen romantic comedy had to offer: a young, beautiful cast, gorgeous scenery and strong beachy vibes that would have me yearning for the ocean’s salty breeze.
I shouldn’t have been so cocky. Sure, you might guess the end destination, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the journey. The secret to this success shouldn’t be remarkable, but it’s something that’s actually surprisingly elusive in teen shows: The creators know their core audience of teenage girls. And they use every tool in their arsenal to reach them, including writing, casting and music choice.
The Summer I Turned Pretty, or TSITP, is proof that showrunners don’t need to reinvent the wheel to attract audiences. Teenage girls are, rightfully, some of the most discerning audiences, and they deserve shows that don’t take their viewership for granted. And I’m happy to report that because of all their efforts, TSITP is one of the best teen rom-coms out there.
‘This summer will be different’
The seven episode season follows 16-year-old Isabel “Belly” Conklin’s many romantic relationships throughout her summer vacation in the fictional beach town of Cousins. Belly (Lola Tung) has been in love with Conrad Fisher (Christopher Briney) for as long as she can remember, but Conrad has always seen her as a little sister. Conrad’s younger brother Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno) is also in love with Belly. Add in a party every episode, plenty of alcohol and lots of bad communication, and you’ve got a classic love triangle teen drama.
But, it’s not that dramatic. One of the things that TSITP show creator Jenny Han does really well is showing restraint when it comes to the end-of-the-world framing of relationships that’s all too common in teen shows. The romantic relationships are the main focus of the show, but when one relationship ends or begins, the characters just move on. Perhaps it’s because there are just so many relationships to get through in the short series, but the message that life goes on after relationships end is an important one, especially for a young audience.
That isn’t the only thing that separates this show from its cliché-ridden contemporaries. Belly is surprisingly realistic, a self-aware heroine. She isn’t always smooth, like in her painfully-awkward-to-watch relationship with Cam, but her optimism and charm come across as genuine and endearing rather than irritating. In the lead role, Tung brings a compelling innocence to her heartfelt performance that still has me rooting for team Belly, despite some truly eye-roll-worthy decisions Belly makes throughout the season.
Another important note about how TSITP is different from other teen shows: The cast is age appropriate, or at least as close as possible. Thank you, TSITP casting directors, from the bottom of my heart, for not casting 30-year-olds as teenagers. Tung, 19, actually looks like a teenager, as do all the other young people cast. This may seem like a small thing, but having people who are teenagers (or just a few years past) makes the show so much more believable.
The summer Belly wasn’t the main character
People who’ve read the books are undoubtedly in for some surprises, though the changes are mostly for the better.
Fans of the books, the first of which is told solely from Belly’s point of view, might be pleasantly surprised that the show expands beyond just Belly’s relationships. It touches on both families’ fractured parental relationships, the pairing of Steven and his fashion-forward girlfriend Shayla, and the true love story of the series: Laurel and Susannah’s decades-long friendship.
But there are a lot of topics the show brings up briefly yet doesn’t explore beyond a cursory scene or two: the racism Steven experiences working at the Cousins country club, the financial difference and strain between the Conklins and Fishers, Jere’s fluid sexuality. All these things deeply affect the characters and the situations they find themselves in throughout the show, but they aren’t given the proper time to be explored fully. For viewers who haven’t read the books, this can be frustrating.
Even if the second season revisits these issues, Belly’s voice-overs continually bring the viewer back to Belly’s point of view. The voiceovers consistently break a scene’s flow and rarely add new information or clearer context that the viewer couldn’t get otherwise.
In future seasons, it would be great if the show cut the voice-overs altogether or passed the mic to other characters to keep the focus on whoever is the main character of the episode’s storyline.
Going still farther and embracing these other storylines as equal in value to Belly’s romantic relationships would make the show a much richer, nuanced watch.
The summer I blared the TSITP soundtrack
I don’t know what the soundtrack budget was. All I know is it was money well spent. Olivia Rodrigo, Lizzo, Phoebe Bridgers, Ariana Grande, Tyler the Creator, Dua Lipa and Billie Eilish back up the show’s key moments. Not to mention the best song placement of all time: “The Way I Loved You (Taylor’s Version)” by Taylor Swift in the final episode. My poor Swiftie heart swooned.
Other than the songs’ thematic importance — Brutal by Olivia Rodrigo during a fight scene, for example — the music selection shows that the show’s production crew clearly understood its young, female target audience. These are the songs and the artists that many teen girls actually listen to, as if they were pulled straight from their phones and playlists. The music selection enhanced so many scenes because it was able to add a deeper emotional level. There were several moments when I thought, “Yeah, that’s what I would listen to after something like that happened to me.”
The soundtrack also prompted a lot of online chatter, including Lizzo’s amazing four part TikTok reaction series. In addition to releasing the series’ official playlist, Amazon Prime also gave the actors free rein and created character-specific playlists, full of songs they used to get into character and just some of their own favorite songs. Tung’s Belly playlist is especially good.
The Chris Briney summer: Standout performance
One of the notable performances is Christopher Briney’s Conrad. Conrad could easily just fit into the brooding, good-turned-bad boy cliche, but even as early as the first episode, Conrad’s character appears to be more than he seems on the surface. While the writing already sets Conrad up to subvert expectations, Briney’s performance brings a whole new layer of emotional depth and nuance. Watching Briney’s Conrad is a master class in vulnerability, something that can be hard found in teenage boys.
Briney’s brilliance lies in his ability to subtly show all the conflicting paths and roles Conrad wants to take: the older brother keeping his family together, friend to local author Cleveland Castillo, and a stubborn teenage boy who can’t totally decide how he feels about Belly. It’s a delicate line to walk, but Briney manages to reveal just enough to keep viewers engaged and curious about Conrad’s not-so-brooding behaviors. When you go back and rewatch the show knowing what Conrad is dealing with, Briney’s performance only gets more impressive.
The piece de resistance of Briney’s performance comes during episode 6. After watching Briney so deftly bury and deflect Conrad’s emotions for the whole series, he navigates this devastating moment with a reserved heartbreak that’s both hard to watch and impossible to look away from — you finally see how all the pieces of Conrad connect. It’s a beautiful, vulnerable scene, and it’s one in which Briney shines.
The summer of romance book-to-screen adaptations
There’ve been a rash of romance movies and shows coming back by popular demand in the last few years, including Sarah Dessen’s, Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game, Jenny Han’s first book-to-screen adaption, To All The Boys I Loved Before, and The Kissing Booth, based on the book originally published on Wattpad. TSITP now outshines them all.
To be fair, some of these adaptations are meant for a slightly older audience, as their source material is as well. But so many of these shows and movies are marketed toward teenage girls, and so often the people behind these shows have no clue who these girls are, what they want or how best to represent them.
Often teenage girls are demeaned or mocked for what they like, made to feel as though their interests are just the latest passing fad, not worthy of the time or energy it would take to truly understand them. It would be easy for TSITP to fall back on stereotypes, add in a few cultural references and call it a day. It’s harder to create a female lead who makes questionable decisions, struggles in her friendships and doesn’t live and die by her current love interest, because none of these things are associated with the typical TV teen girl. But they’re all things that apply to Belly. And they make her, and the series, so much more interesting, because she seems real.
In an oversaturated genre, The Summer I Turned Pretty shows that the creators not only understand teenage girls, they also value them — as whole people, with complicated feelings and relationships and goals. This sets the series apart, in the best way possible. With a strong foundation established in season 1, and so many topics left to explore, I can’t wait to be surprised again in season 2.
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Go to Publisher: CNET News
Author: Katelyn Chedraoui