What is it about I Know What You Did Last Summer that keeps people coming back? Lois Duncan’s 1973 young-adult novel about a group of teens who run over a boy riding a bicycle and are then haunted with notes that read the titular phrase was a book-fair staple for years after its release. Duncan’s slow-moving mystery was converted into a grotesque slasher during that subgenre’s late-’90s, post-Scream boom. Summer was far less meta than the best of the genre at the time, but it was fun enough and remains an enjoyable relic of its day. And now Amazon is offering an eight-episode series courtesy of creator Sara Goodman, who wrote and executive produced the original Gossip Girl.
A show’s gotta be about something, and a story of selfish teens who kill someone and then, unlike those in the book, leave them for dead without alerting authorities, only to have their guilt externalized in the form of a murderer, is a sturdy enough premise. It’s classic in its way, but hardly feels like something that demands perennial updating. No, if you ask me, the main draw of I Know What You Did Last Summer comes primarily via its title: foreboding, rich, and terrifyingly universal. We all have secrets. Hopefully most of them aren’t in the form of unreported corpses, but there is something wholly disconcerting in the idea of being seen and tormented for our past.
If only anyone involved with this new I Know What You Did Last Summer had ideas that lived up to the title. Instead, this is an unfocused, needlessly convoluted series that desperately wants to be cutting edge, but seems to have no idea what that actually entails. So the characters use a lot of language popularized by Drag Race (“Tea!,” “Snatched!”) and snort ketamine out of a spray bottle. OnlyFans, eating disorders, and bitcoin all show up in some form. There’s a suspicious caretaker named Courtney (Cassie Beck), who quotes a contestant from the first season of Rock of Love (“Don’t threaten me with a good time”) and throws a dead rodent through a window, and there’s a cop who speaks in a stilted, overly formal style that I assume is homage to David Lynch (“I did find a felonious amount of drugs in the corndogs”). It all has a neon-teen sheen, a la Euphoria, with none of the soul. While the show is optically diverse (with a strong concentration of Asian characters, as the setting is Waikiki), it can’t seem to resist stereotypes—the Black-presenting character Riley (played by model Ashley Moore, who has said she’s Black, white, and Cherokee) is the drug dealer of the friend group, and the queer guy Johnny (Sebastian Amoruso) dates a coach at his former high school, whom he started fucking senior year. This show is more like Eu-faux-ria.
What these characters did last summer was run over one of their friends after a party—it just happened to be the twin of the teen driving the car. They’re all inebriated and there are even more drugs in the car, and since the teen was annoying and not really their friend anyway, they all decide to leave her in a cave. As one character reasons: “No one will find her if we put her in the cave. The whole cult killed themselves there. The tide took them all.” Yes, there’s a local cult to squeeze into a veritable net of red herrings, which include the aforementioned Courtney, a horny guy who rides by and sees the group as they scramble to cover up the death, plus one character’s insistence on posting their cover up on her Instagram stories (???).
The reason I didn’t name the character who dies in the preceding paragraph is that there’s a bait-and-switch that happens at the end of the first episode—the twin that you are led to think was killed (and that in fact virtually everyone believes was), it turns out, was the twin that lived whom everyone had assumed was her sister. For completely nonsensical reasons, her father ends up going along with the ruse. Now she’s the other one! But wait...is she? A dry monologue about identity opens the show, placing us firmly in the realm of cliche (“You really never know anyone. Least of all yourself.”). Madison Iseman plays both twin sisters, Alison and Lennon, distinguishing them with little more than a lopsided smirk that one wears. There’s barely enough characterization between the two to make one. This is territory that Freeform...doesn’t exactly nail, typically, but does a decent job in making coherent and addictive. Here, it’s all confusion, no payoff. I Know What You Did Last Summer makes Cruel Summer look like high art.
I Know What You Did Last Summer crawls on with pretenses of intrigue and a drawn-out string of murders that mostly occur off-screen. Alison/Lennon nonsensically interacts with her tormentor, who reaches her by text. There are real screamers of lines here and there: “I think someone knows what we did,” says Allison, who then shows her group of friends a picture of “I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER” written on her mirror in lipstick. Ya think? That message was left alongside a goat’s decapitated head hanging in her closet, which Riley helps her clean up with Nature’s Miracle. “It’s not just for dog shit,” quips Riley, finally making good on Nature’s Miracle’s comedy potential. Allison/Riley tells her friends at one point to “shove it up [their] bleached assholes.” Clueless is misquoted and then the gaffe is called out (“You’re a virgin who doesn’t have a driver’s license!” “Did you just misquote Clueless at me?”). I actually did laugh for real, once: when one friend mourns the death of their shrinking group, wondering allowed if he suffered. Riley retorts, “I mean, he had his head chopped off.”
Oh! There’s also tons of gratuitous sex and (mostly male) nudity, like a stray shot of a kid pissing next to the pool at that aforementioned party, and the town cop who receives cunnilingus while she’s on a work call. The show is so try-hard, it’s what any number of these characters would deem “cringe.”
We keep cutting back to that party, episode after episode, as if anything interesting happened there in the first place. It didn’t, and as the four episodes that were sent to press ahead of this show’s debut draw on, there’s the creeping sense that throwing so much at us only really serves to pad things out to somehow convert a solid concept into a compelling story. Missioned failed. We know what they did last summer, but why we should care is anybody’s guess.