Competing in a series of death-defying stunts in order to win a cash prize sounds a little nuts to me these days, but back when I was graduating high school, it would have seemed like a great time (in fact, I think they called it Fear Factor). The premise of the new Amazon series Panic is exactly this type of competition, and the graduating high school seniors who are eligible for it largely have the same reaction I think I would have.
This game, called Panic, is held every summer in the forgotten rural town of Carp, Texas, which has only 12,000 residents. The cash prize is intended to help the winner escape the small town and chase dreams they couldn’t hope to pursue otherwise. In order to fund this, each senior puts $1 per day into a pot for the whole school year. The following summer, a shadowy and anonymous group of Judges will suddenly and cryptically give signs to indicate that the game is starting. Anyone who wants to play gathers at the agreed-upon place and the winner gets all the money. It’s a tradition that’s gone on for years and whose roots are lost.
Panic is wildly popular among the youth of Carp. A lot of people play the game, with some even preparing for it years ahead of time. Even those who don’t want or need to play gather as spectators to take part in the festivities and have an excuse to party. Everyone wants to be a part of Panic. Everyone except Heather.
Heather is the honest and hard-working daughter of a single parent. Her mother is a decent woman but has fallen into poverty, abusive romances, and addiction. Heather, resolved to escape the circumstances of her birth and take her younger sister with her, has worked, scrimped, and saved ever since she was old enough to start doing so. To her, Panic is nothing but a silly distraction from what’s important.
As protagonists often do, Heather faces an unexpected and tragic turn of events that throws the foundations she was building for her future right out the window. At that moment, just as Panic is already underway, she decides that she has no choice but to join and put her safety on the line. She’s joining in the one year that Panic will be more perilous than ever. The previous Summer, two promising teens were killed playing the game. So now, the police know about it and are determined to stop it from happening.
As the game and challenges unfold over the course of the following weeks, it becomes more and more evident that things are not what they seem and the competition is being manipulated by outside forces. The competitors themselves soon realize that all of their lives are at stake and they need to work together to get through it. As Heather states at one point, “It’s not a game anymore”.
Panic is the latest entry in the teen drama genre that dates back to shows like Beverly Hills, 90210, and Dawson’s Creek in the ’90s. The characters are all in high school (more or less), there is romance and drama at every turn, and the circumstances these kids face always seem to be unusually dire for people of their age.
It must be said that Panic is a well-executed version of this archetype due to its strong originality and story-telling. It is based on a popular novel and this is evident from the way the series is composed. The characters are deep and nuanced and each stunt that is part of the game is so well-conceived that it has you waiting excitedly to see what the next one will be. The creepy, almost supernatural methods that define the way the game is administered add a great layer to the mystery. Panic is also a lot grittier than its predecessors; there is plenty of drug use and swearing, just as there would be in any real high school.
This limited series-type treatment is perfect for stories like Panic because it would suffer if it were edited down to the length of a feature film. The pacing here is very consistent, with plenty of excitement, twists, and moments of suspense. This does come apart a little bit in the season finale, where events become quite rushed to tie up every storyline before the end. There are a couple of moments in particular that seem like they deserve quite a bit more screen time, even if only to prevent the viewer from trying to figure out what they just saw.
The symbolism and societal commentary the story uses are both poignant and almost laugh-out-loud funny when they are genuinely considered. Here is a group of young people who should be overflowing with optimism and dreams for the future, but unless they’re rich or getting into a good college, the only way they can imagine escaping the sleepy town they grew up in and having a real shot at a satisfying life is to engage in this crazy, terrifying game where people are sometimes killed. The police and other adults who are aware of Panic are understandably concerned and don’t want these kids risking their lives, but at no point do any of them express anything like, “Oh my god, why would they do something like this!?” It’s as though there is tacit acknowledgment from everybody involved that the pragmatic proposition the game offers is perfectly understandable. This is intended to highlight the futility that a lot of high school graduates feel today as they enter the real world and discover that there isn’t a long list of appealing prospects.
On that note, Panic also does a great job of portraying the often-forgotten people that occupy the decaying rural and semi-urban areas of Middle America. It captures the poverty, addiction, and harsh realities that are rampant there with grace. It brings some of the same appeal Hillbilly Elegy was going for without being pointlessly heavy-handed in the way I feel that film is.
Panic is far from perfect. If you’re not the type who enjoys this type of teen drama, the storylines and motives of the characters can seem petty or unimportant. There are many tense conversations about love and friendship, and it may sometimes be tempting to think to oneself, “They’re teenagers! None of this matters!”.
While a lot of the characters are thoroughly developed, some of them have motives that don’t really make sense. After all the secrecy and shocking revelations, it’s easy to look back across the story arc and completely lose track of why some people are doing what they are suddenly doing. The main villain is apparently motivated by a monetary wager they made, but by the time this is all revealed, there doesn’t appear to be any way they could collect on that bet even if their plans came to fruition. It was hard not to think about that during the climactic scenes of the series.
On that same point, the overall story becomes convoluted at times. There is so much intentional deception and mystery that when there is a dramatic moment and characters are talking quickly, you can easily forget who is who, where they are, and what exactly they’re trying to do. It’s not daunting, but I definitely had to rewatch a few scenes to closely follow the storyline.
Panic is a creative and compelling story that will keep you guessing and engaged. If you’re a fan of shows like Riverdale, you need to put this on your watchlist. Even if you’re not a fan of teen dramas, Panic is worth checking out when you just want something to binge.
Synopsis: No one knows who invented Panic or when it first began. But in the forgotten rural town of Carp, Texas, the game is the only way out. Every summer the graduating seniors risk their lives competing in a series of challenges that force them to confront their deepest fears for the chance to win life-changing money. Anyone can play. Only one will win. Let the games begin.
Created by: Lauren Oliver
Starring: Olivia Welch, Mike Faist, Ray Nicholson
Streaming: Amazon Prime
My name is Kevin and I have been writing about movies with GNN since January 2020. Some of my favorite films are Inception, Django Unchained, American Hustle, and Gladiator. I graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University in May 2018. I am currently self-employed in e-commerce and live in Tempe, Arizona. In my free time, you can probably find me slinging spells in Magic: the Gathering or dusting off a retro video game console (Super Nintendo is my favorite).