There’s something about the summer that is just right for steamy teen mysteries. This means it’s the perfect time for Amazon Prime Video’s latest foray into YA television, “Panic.” Based on the novel of the same name by Lauren Oliver, who also developed the show, “Panic” is set in the small town of Carp, Texas. “Every small town has a secret. Ours has a game,” a voiceover tells us in the opening scene of the pilot. See, here every summer members of the graduating high school class take part in a secret, dangerous game—the titular Panic.
Throughout their senior year, each teen has contributed a dollar to the pot every day, so stakes are high now that the cash prize is $50k. Once a player has entered the game they have to do a series of increasingly dangerous stunts and challenges, as well as decipher clues as to where they’ll take place. The judges are unknown, though the game is run by an em-cee, fellow recent graduate Diggins (David W. Thompson). As the show progresses, details of how the gameplay works, as well as its mysterious history, are revealed.
In the pilot episode, directed with verve by Ry Russo-Young, we learn that this game has been a tradition in this desolate small town for as long as anyone can remember. We also learn that there is only one winner each year, and in the past, some players have died including two the previous year—upstanding students and sweethearts, Abby and Jimmy. The circumstances of their deaths and how they’re connected to this year’s game is one of the show’s major plot threads.
Enter this year’s main players.
Heather Nill (Olivia Welch) is the class valedictorian who initially isn’t going to play, but changes her mind when her flaky mom steals the money she’s been saving to attend college. Welch is a compelling lead, full of pluck and melancholy in equal measure. Her angst stems from her home life and the future prospect of being stuck in this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, dot-on-a-map town like her mother.
One thing the series does incredibly well is set up the tension caused by socio-economics. When you’re in high school everyone is even. Sort of. But not really. Heather lives with her single mom in a double-wide trailer, sharing a room with her much-younger sister. When she loses her job after graduation, it hits hard as she’s not just saving for college—she’s feeding her sibling.
Her BFF Natalie (Jessica Sula) lives in a slightly bigger house with a wrap-around porch. Money isn’t life or death for her, but it does mean independence from her father and a new life in Los Angeles. She soon forges an alliance with Dodge Mason (Mike Faist), the new guy in town, who is playing for more than just the prize money. Physically, Faist fits the bill of a tall, lanky rodeo rat to a tee. Also in their friend group is Bishop Mason (Camron Jones), who lives in a literal mansion with expansive property behind it, but is the victim of a father whose verbal abuse only he witnesses. Jones plays Bishop as all discomfort, holding himself clenched and anxious through most of his screen time. When we finally see Bishop let go, the results are terrifying.
Each chapter of the ten-episode series centers around a new challenge within Panic, with the teens learning more about each other and their own limits. Meanwhile, Sheriff Cortez (Enrique Murciano) and his team (Todd Williams, Lee Eddy) try to put a stop to the shenanigans, yet the teens always seem to be one step ahead. This is where viewers are best served by allowing a suspension for disbelief. Game setups are incredibly elaborate and wonderfully entertaining, but it’s hard to believe that a) these kids could actually pull some of these set pieces off without a budget and crew, and b) that they could be so loud and yet the police can’t ever seem to find them. I grew up in cow country and no matter how hard teens tried, unless they went out to the literal middle of nowhere, the cops always busted up the fun. Then again, it’s a real hoot to see a bunch of bored kids in the middle of nowhere actually pull one over the adults, so your mileage may vary.
It wouldn’t be a teen show without a little bit of romance-related drama. The obvious sexual tension between Heather and Bishop gets complicated as the former connects with the class asshole, Ray Hall (Ray Nicholson), whose brother won the game a few years earlier. At first, Nicholson plays Ray like he’s the titular dirty white boy in the Foreigner song, all sexual id, with a confident charm that draws you in, even when you know better. As the show progresses he adds even more beguiling layers to his performance, saving Ray from becoming what could have easily been a walking cliche. On a scale of one to “Riverdale,” there aren’t a lot of sex scenes in “Panic,” but boy do they make them count. There are not one but two acts of cunnilingus. Are the teen boys really that advanced these days? If so, good for the straight Gen Z girls!
“Panic” is perfectly calibrated for those who like a good, nail-biting binge. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger and something more preposterous than the next. The tension dissipates a bit in the middle of the season, Episodes 7 and 8 are a slog, but the final two episodes are so chock full of chaos they make up for the slump.
Just as the dust settles from the game’s outrageous, thrilling end and the show seems like it’s going to wrap everything up a little too nicely, it zigs when you think it’s going to zag. The haunting whiplash will likely linger in the viewer’s mind like waves of sultry heat that refuse to settle on the sidewalk during the waning dog days of summer. “Panic” proves itself a perfectly pulpy summer series that should satiate fans of Oliver’s novel, and anyone else looking for a little danger-infused escapism. [B]
“Panic” is available now on Amazon Prime Video.