‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’ gets personal

Belly and Conrad have their final dance at prom. Belly glances forlornly back at the viewer, hinting at the tension and tumultuous relationship between the couple throughout the season. // Photo courtesy of Prime Video

Season 1 spoilers ahead.

Teen love is characterized by unrequited feelings, changing perspectives and uncertainty. When done well, the addition of a love triangle turns a show into the world’s new obsession. Last year introduced “The Summer I Turned Pretty.” This novel-turned-series, based on Jenny Han’s young adult trilogy, used its first season of blissful romance to build a more emotionally realistic second season. 

The first season introduced Isabel “Belly” Conklin (Lola Tung), a high school student who has finally grown into her skin. Every summer, she vacations with the Fisher family to Cousins Beach. Joined by her brother Steven Conklin (Sean Kaufman, “Manifest”) and love-interests Conrad Fisher (Christopher Briney, “Dalíland”) and Jeremiah Fisher (Gavin Casalegno, “Noah”), Belly takes on the summer with a new confidence and aspirations. Her goal in season one is to get a boyfriend and live rebelliously. Belly breaks hearts and thrives in drama while drawing in viewers through navigating early love. 

The first season ends neatly — Belly and Conrad are together, everyone is happy and the kids head back to school. Viewers would assume the second season continues this bliss, at least for the first episode. It does not. Despite how the trailer appears, the second season opens with the hard-hitting realities of cancer battles and personal grief. To make matters worse, the nostalgic vacation home at Cousins Beach is up for sale in the midst of tragedy. Throughout the season, the idea of a perfect ending disappears. Relationships change and grow between Belly, Conrad and Jeremiah, still teetering between love and friendship. Belly remains the lovable, sometimes frustrating main character deciding between two good people. Conrad is still the brooding charmer, while Jeremiah assumes his role as the golden retriever of the group. The changes they went through between the end of season one and the beginning of season two push them further out of their character but do not dull the personalities they radiated from the first season. 

Although the title implies its heavy emphasis on an external ‘pretty’ as the trigger for a romantic adventure, the narratives explore deeper than the surface. Both seasons paint love in different ways. The first shows the adventure of first love, while the second focuses on balancing love through pain.

Love triangles mean one broken heart and one overjoyed heart. “The Summer I Turned Pretty” places both Conrad and Jeremiah as perfect choices. There is no red flag versus green flag. The first season highlights Conrad as Belly’s first love, but carries Jeremiah as an equally viable choice. Season two shares the impact grief and personal struggles have on relationships as well as the instability of feelings. 

“The Summer I Turned Pretty” is more than a trashy romance trope centered around choosing a boy. The series tackles the transition into identity and how the darkness of death impacts people of all personality types. The first season feels like a guilty pleasure, but the second season seems reminiscent of the ups and downs of life.

As with any teen love triangle, there are plenty of moments to cringe at or cry with. Not every choice is the right one, but the character growth that comes with it moves the story along. The chemistry between Tung and her counterparts Briney and Casalegno is enthralling. 

Last year’s phenomenon was not lost with its new installment. “The Summer I Turned Pretty” takes on a darker tone, but the uncertainty of each episode keeps the series alive. Romance is at center stage, but the friendships and experiences that frame it are what makes the viewers come back for more.