So many factors can compete to make a teenager think that there is no future ahead. The characters in Amazon’s latest Young Adult adaptation series certainly think so. It’s made very absolutely clear in the first episode of Panic that there are no prospects in Carp, Texas (pop. 12,000). Graduating high school seniors who don’t have enough banked to get out of dodge are, we are told, inevitably doomed to a slow decline. Luckily for them, some mysterious fellows years ago created Panic, a game of ever-escalating challenges with the promise of a massive cash prize and the freedom it can buy.
For this to work as a dramatic device, of course, you kinda have to believe that there really is no option other than to compete in Panic, and the show is already on shaky ground there. Each of the troupe of teens competing have their own reasons. Heather Nill (Olivia Welch) lives in a trailer with her down and out mother and prodigal sister. When her long scraped together college fund gets stolen she joins Panic on impulse, much to the chagrin of best friend Natalie (Jessica Sula) who has been planning how to win Panic for years.
Ahhh, see here is where it all gets a little hazy. Natalie wants the prize money to start a modeling career in Hollywood, but considering she is an attractive and accomplished student, and not in financial dire straits like Heather, then quite why she can’t just get on with hard work etc is unclear. No, with Panic you just have to accept that there is no choice for these teens but to play the game. Secretive judges award points and an unnamed bagman keeps the money safe, all whilst trying to avoid the watchful eyes of local law enforcement.
The game itself is good fun. As the episodes progress the challenges get increasingly dangerous, from big thrills cliff jumps through to blindfolded train track treks, and this format means that virtually every episode will have a central moment to look forward to. There is also a side plot concerning how two competitors from the previous year died during the game in suspicious circumstances, and how the potential for betting on the results could be detrimental to the integrity of all concerned. All of this unfurls amongst an unending stream of pop music snippets to the point where you have to suspect if the show’s producers were concerned that any more than 60 seconds without a teenage hit single would result in those short attention span blighters switching off.
For the most part, the cast is entertaining enough to sell the melodrama. Welch imbues Heather with exterior vulnerability ready to be shed for a burgeoning iron will which is essential in these kinds of shows. The male leads consist of newcomer to the town, Dodge Mason (Mike Faist), who has a secret past fuelling his motivation, and Ray Hall (Ray Nicholson, son of Jack), a redneck cocky ball of testosterone whose brother was a past winner. There are hormones and betrayals a-plenty in this seething gumbo which can taste surprisingly better than the sum of its parts.
The chewiest chunks, as previously mentioned, are the challenges. Less satisfying are the obligatory romantic liaisons. Love Triangle™ comes courtesy of Heather, Ray, and rich boy harbouring a lifelong crush, Bishop (Cameron Jones). Frankly neither ignite the screen and Panic missteps by frontloading Ray to be too much of a human swagger machine (who makes a move when Heather is vulnerable and drunk: not a good look) to the effect that you can’t believe Heather’s begrudging attraction, even when he gets rounded out as ‘not that bad really’ later. Other couplings hardly sell themselves as meaningful or important either.
Even though Panic goes on for 10 episodes (rather than the standard Netflix salvo of 8) it has pace and bounces throughout so that even the more baffling moments only rock its carriages and not derail them. Faist as Dodge is excellent and, unlike everyone around him, plays his part with quiet calculating grace which makes for a welcome respite. Heather is a strong lead and keeps you engaged even when things get very ‘us and them’ in the closing moments.
Panic seeds a series 2 by never drilling down as to the true origins of the game. But, as this review started, when the show never makes a compelling case for why playing is so essential, it’s hard to drum up much enthusiasm for more.
Words by Mike Record