[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the Season 2 finale of The Summer I Turned Pretty, "Love Triangle." Read at your own risk!]
It is inevitable that when a new teen soap bursts onto the scene and really hits, it will be compared to its teen soap forebears. It is our way. Jenny Han's hit series The Summer I Turned Pretty sees teen Belly Conklin (Lola Tung) grow out of her awkward phase and directly into an angsty love triangle with brothers Conrad and Jeremiah Fisher (Christopher Briney and Gavin Casalegno) while on vacation in Cousins Beach, a fictional New England beach town where the three spent idyllic summers growing up together. So when the show initially drew comparisons to Dawson's Creek, it made sense. The Summer I Turned Pretty has the emotional earnestness of a '90s teen soap and those coastal vibes that let you get lost in the comfort of the salty sea air. But The Summer I Turned Pretty feels more dreamy than Dawson's Creek ever did — its protagonist more reflective and introverted, its dialogue more naturalistic. And holy hell, does it understand the power of a longing look. It dawned on me while watching the recently concluded second season: The Summer I Turned Pretty isn't the successor to Dawson's Creek; it's clearly the successor to another '90s teen-ish soap — Felicity. I mean, the yearning in both alone! Sure, Felicity, the J.J. Abrams drama that ran on The WB (RIP, my friend!) from 1998 to 2002, is about college kids in New York City, but the romantic, sensitive, idealistic Felicity Porter (Keri Russell) and her earnest, angst-ridden, sometimes delightfully cringey voiceover walked so that Belly Conklin could run. I'm sorry, but there is no smoothaise without mayo, and there is no The Summer I Turned Pretty without Felicity.
The similarities between the two series are obviously there in tone and in our leading ladies (both Felicity and Belly would not hesitate to describe the places that have changed them as magical, and would do it with a straight face), but the strongest link between the two dramas can be found in the love triangles that anchor them both. Take a look at the players. Felicity's heart goes back and forth between Ben Covington (Scott Speedman), the moody, broody boy she's loved all her life, whom she follows across the country — he is the dream, if you will — and Noel Crane (Scott Foley), the affable, goofy R.A. who becomes one of her closest friends. Do those options sound familiar to anyone else? Sure, Jere is infinitely cooler than Noel ever was (I say that as a ride-or-die member of Team Noel), but both are puppy dogs with hidden depths. And Conrad is never quite as much of a dick to Belly as Ben is to Felicity — even when Conrad becomes a complete ass toward the end of Season 2, his motivation is alarmingly clear — but wow, both are real Sad Boys (again, said with love!).
The general archetypes match up, and so do the reasons why both of these love triangles work so well: In each series, you can see the appeal of both options for our protagonist. Even if you don't agree with it (love triangles are meant to divide us into factions; it's the fun part!), you understand why Felicity and Belly might be torn — the different sides to these triangles represent their different needs. It also doesn't hurt that, like Russell, Tung has palpable onscreen chemistry with both of her leading men. The best love triangles are the ones in which you could see the person at the center of the triangle ending up with either option. One of the most refreshing aspects of The Summer I Turned Pretty is how upfront it is, especially in Season 2, about how love can change as you do. The show recognizes that Belly's choice should be about what she needs right now and understands how that might change in time, and that's OK — that's life. One of the least refreshing aspects of The Summer I Turned Pretty is the fact that not one single person is like, Belly, please, for the love of all things holy, make your dating pool larger than two brothers, but that is for a different post, perhaps.
The Summer I Turned Pretty has another effective element in its love triangle that you can find in Felicity — strong, meaningful character development. In Felicity, the love triangle is foundational, but there is, mercifully, more to each character than their role within it; they are fully fleshed out. In Season 2 of The Summer I Turned Pretty, you can not only see this kind of important character growth happening, but you can see how it immediately makes the central love triangle even stronger and more engaging.
The smartest choice The Summer I Turned Pretty makes — aside from shoring up rights to use the Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo, and Beyoncé songbooks — is to take the time to build out the relationship between the Fisher brothers. The show already does a nice job of giving Belly conflict outside of her romances — her relationships with her mother (Jackie Chung), with Taylor (Rain Spencer), and with volleyball all round her out as a character — but Season 2 also spends time giving that treatment to Conrad and Jere. It would be easy and understandable to make their issues with one another solely about loving the same person; that's complicated and very uncomfortable! But The Summer I Turned Pretty gives us more than that. The brothers' beef with one another goes much deeper, because it's all mixed in with their grief and anger over their mother's (Rachel Blanchard) death.
You can see the tension simmering throughout the season, but it doesn't come to the surface until Jere finally explodes at Conrad in Episode 6 (written by Keith Antone and Cameron J. Ross and directed by Sophia Takal) about his resentment toward him for not being more present as their mother died. It was Jere who was with her day in and day out while, from Jere's perspective, Conrad was off in college or being with Belly or moping about not being with Belly. The older brother he's looked up to turned out to be a coward. That kind of resentment between siblings when a parent dies is so real and visceral, and I'm so happy this teen soap went there.
In the next episode (written by Vanessa Rojas and directed by Megan Griffiths), we get a lovely, healing conversation between the boys where they apologize and promise to always tell each other how they're feeling. They vow to rely on each other, to be honest and supportive. And just like that, the stakes of this love triangle get impossibly high. Belly being torn between two brothers was always messy, for obvious reasons, but throwing their grief on top of it — and watching them come to the realization that, now more than ever, they need and want to be there for one another — makes it so wonderfully complicated. Belly deciding who she wants to be with isn't as simple as saying goodbye to one person; it could cause an insurmountable rift between two brothers. That is some pressure right there. It also makes the entire triangle infinitely more interesting.
The show doesn't hesitate to show off that complexity, either. In the gorgeous second season finale (written by Sarah Kucserka and directed by Griffiths), after Conrad has caught Belly and Jere finally giving in to their obvious feelings for one another by way of a hardcore makeout on top of his car, we watch as Conrad tries to mask his pain with pettiness (has Conrad Fisher ever been so interesting?!) and as Jere grapples with the unshakeable idea that Belly might never really be able to give up his brother. But if their promise in the previous episode to always be honest with one another wasn't just talk, they're going to have to confront both of those issues.
In a heartbreaking scene handled deftly by both Brinley and Casalegno, they do just that. Jere begs his brother to be honest about his very obvious feelings for Belly — he needs to tell her that he still loves her, because the only fair way to move forward for all of them is for everything to be out on the table. Belly can only make a real choice if she has all the information. And if Conrad, who has a habit of holding things in as a way of self-preservation, can't do that for Belly or for himself, Jere asks that Conrad do it for him, his brother, because he needs to know if he's really who Belly wants to be with or if he's just the next best option. And so Conrad promises he will. Both brothers make it very clear that all they want is not only for Belly to be happy, but for the other one to be happy, too. No one is going to stand in the other's way after Belly makes her choice. It's a fascinating turn for a teen love triangle.
In the end, even after Belly learns that Conrad still has feelings for her, she wants to be with Jere. As she told him before, Conrad was just a dream; Jere is something real. But the heartbreaking look of anguish on Conrad's face as he leaves Belly and Jeremiah together means there still hasn't been a real conclusion to this love triangle. By giving us a deeper look at the relationship the Fisher brothers have with one another, The Summer I Turned Pretty has given itself more room to explore this core dynamic and given us another iconic teen soap love triangle that is emotionally devastating in the very best, most fun (yes, fun!) way. Season 2 of The Summer I Turned Pretty gives its central love triangle so much more angst to dive into. Felicity Porter would be proud.
The Summer I Turned Pretty Season 2 is now streaming on Prime Video.