Another year has gone by, and we’ve found our way back to summer. Arguably one of the best book-to-screen TV adaptations streaming right now, The Summer I Turned Pretty is here with season two, but as protagonist Belly Conklin (Lola Tung) notes, this summer doesn’t feel like the others.
The first season of The Summer I Turned Pretty introduced audiences to Belly’s world of Cousins Beach. The setting of the quaint beachside town was lovingly imagined by Jenny Han in the original young adult trilogy, and the adaptation brings it to life. At the start of the series, audiences are told about how every summer, Belly, her mother Laurel (Jackie Chung), and Belly’s brother Steven (Sean Kaufman) travel to Cousins Beach. There, they spend their summers with the Fisher family, made up of Laurel’s best friend Susannah (Rachel Blanchard), older son Conrad (Christopher Briney), and younger son Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno).
The group of kids has grown up with one another, and Belly’s always been in love with Conrad. Season one was all about Belly preparing for the Cousins Beach country club’s debutante ball, symbolic of her “coming-of-age.” Along the way, Belly struggled with her feelings for both of the Fisher brothers, who have finally begun noticing her in a romantic light now that Belly has grown up.
At the start of season two, Susannah, always the radiant, sunshine-like presence of the beach house, has passed away after her battle with cancer. All of the characters — in particular Laurel, Belly, Conrad, and Jeremiah — are grieving in the aftermath of Susannah’s death. Belly is also reckoning with both of her relationships with Conrad and Jeremiah, which haven’t turned out as she’d hoped. The kids, who have already started to drift apart in the wake of Susannah’s death, are pulled back together when the Fisher brothers’ Aunt Julia (Kyra Sedgwick) announces her plan to sell the beloved beach house.
The kids, together with the Fisher brothers’ cousin Skye (Elsie Fisher), band together to save the beach house that has been such a pivotal part of their summers. In reuniting with the brothers, Belly finds her feelings for both Jeremiah and Conrad haven’t been completely resolved. From a fun day at the Cousins Beach boardwalk to a night out at the country club to a goodbye party at the beach house, season two is all about paying homage to Cousins Beach and its memories.
If there had to be one word that could encompass all of season two, it would be “memory.” Although this theme was present in season one, season two of The Summer I Turned Pretty is all about remembering the past. The atmosphere is considerably darker when compared to the bright, happy summer tones of season one.
It’s hard not to miss the past when it comes to what was presented in the first season. That also seems to be the intention on the part of the show’s writers. The time the kids spend at Cousins Beach this season still has a certain degree of romanticism — the idealistic summer visuals and the childhood joy is still there, but it’s tinged with a reminder that it’s hard to recreate the joy of childhood when you’re no longer a child.
Because all of the characters are grappling with their grief over Susannah, there’s a lot more sadness in each moment. It’s an emotion that’s suffocating at times. Characters confess their feelings about Susannah through tears or others can’t help but pause when they think about Susannah mid-conversation. One particular moment has Belly calling her mother over the phone in tears, and although it’s a very of-the-moment incident of vulnerability, one gets the sense that there’s a lot more coming to the surface.
As always, Tung is an absolute star, and it’s not just because she’s the lead. Tung’s ability to simultaneously capture Belly’s witty charisma and Belly’s insecurities is by far the most relatable element of the coming-of-age series. Whenever she’s on the screen, Tung embodies Belly, as do both Briney and Casalegno as Conrad and Jeremiah, respectively.
Structurally, the writers collectively do a strong job at making each episode its own and yet naturally building up to the next. The flashbacks start off well, ramping up the emotional intensity between Belly and Conrad and subsequently also hinting that the journey to the top is difficult, but so is the process of staying there. However, once they do depict the significant moment when Belly and Conrad’s relationship takes a massive turn, the flashbacks begin to feel excessive. It’s hard to pinpoint where exactly each flashback is occurring from that point onward. The over-reliance on flashbacks can be distracting from the present, but it also isn’t unjustified given that the story arc is about looking back on memories.
What The Summer I Turned Pretty does best is create a sense of nostalgia for the idea of a classic summer. Cousins Beach has the special friendliness of a beachside town, and even though it’s more of an idea, the kind of place that only exists in fiction, it still feels exceptionally real.