There is a lot of pressure on a sophomore project to live up to the hype of its predecessor. (Look no further than just about every headline declaring that Conversations With Friends dropped the Normal People torch.) The Summer I Turned Pretty is the second Jenny Han adaptation after To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (and its sequels) launched a million Noah Centineo thirst tweets in 2018. No matter that it’s in a different format (movie vs. TV series) or on a different streamer (Netflix vs. Prime Video): To All The Boys set the bar by which The Summer I Turned Pretty will be measured.
Thankfully, it measures up quite well. Han is a co-showrunner and executive producer on the series, and it shows: The characters feel lived in, with warm chemistries and rich histories that suggest they are well known by their creator. Isabel Conklin (Lola Tung), affectionately and perhaps inconceivably referred to as “Belly” by everyone in her life, has spent every summer on Cousins Beach with her mother Laurel (Jackie Chung), brother Steven (Sean Kaufman), mom’s best friend Susannah (Rachel Blanchard), and her two boys, Conrad and Jeremiah (Christopher Briney and Gavin Casalegno). On the cusp of 16, Belly returns to Susannah’s gorgeous beach house with her family, hoping that this summer, the boys will finally stop seeing her as that little kid they grew up with.
Sensing the potential for a love triangle? Ding, ding, ding! But it doesn’t reveal itself as quickly as you’d think. The Summer I Turned Pretty reinforces over and over that Belly has been in love with the elder brother, Conrad, since she was young, but he has suddenly adopted a moody, misunderstood attitude that serves as a bit of a mystery in the season’s first half. Jeremiah, on the other hand, is a sunny, bisexual party boy, happy to follow the fun and an “equal opportunity” flirt. The show never quite makes it a fair fight between the brothers, yet it still manages to make you feel very attached to both of them.
And that’s where the real strength of The Summer I Turned Pretty lies: The six core characters (two middle-aged best friends and their four children) come off like people who have spent the last 15 summers together. In particular, Laurel and Susannah, with their respective marriages more or less in the rearview mirror, paint a vivid portrait of what a long-term relationship looks like, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.
But what about the teens? A summer in Cousins hits a lot of season-specific notes: bonfires, beach walks, Fourth of July festivities, volleyball tournaments. But the main event tracked over the arc of the season is a debutante ball, which Susannah ropes Belly into participating in, much to Laurel’s distaste. Aside from the obvious question of who will escort her, the ball provides plenty of opportunities for teenage awkwardness. And smartly, Han & Co. have characters question how appropriate the very concept of such an event is, with a couple of mentions of “the patriarchy” and one deb being escorted by her girlfriend. But most of these reservations are quickly waved away with the defense that it’s for “networking” and it raises a lot of money for good causes. Okay! Glad we’re all on the same page!
Joking aside, the show strikes a delicate balance between lightness and heaviness. The Summer I Turned Pretty is an extremely fun watch, but three of its main characters are of Korean descent, staying in the expansive beachside property of their much wealthier, whiter friends. The show is tasked with addressing class and race in ways that feel natural to its characters’ experiences, and it mostly succeeds, particularly in the case of Belly’s brother Steven, who’s working at a country club to save money for college and has to decide if he should to swallow some serious microaggressions for better tips.
However, it’s a magnetically charming Lola Tung who holds this world together (like Lana Condor before her). Unfortunately, Belly’s voiceover is applied inconsistently throughout and becomes redundant, hardly ever adding anything that we aren’t already getting from Tung’s facial expressions. The music, on the other hand, is consistently ace, perfectly calibrated for a summer-ready teen or anyone itching for a warm-weather drive. In fact, the whole show is summer escapism (if your escapism can handle some longing and heartbreak) in TV form. The beats of The Summer I Turned Pretty might be familiar—predictable, even—but it’s a good familiarity, like your favorite summer spot coming into view for the first time on vacation.