The hard thing about town-wide conspiracies is that you need buy-in from a lot of people. To keep one going like the one in the new Amazon Prime Video series “Panic” means an impossibly concentrated effort on the part of just about everyone involved. In “Panic,” the high schoolers in a small Texas town called Carp hold an annual secret contest where players endure a series of dangerous tasks. The reward — enough cash to fund a move to a new job or fall tuition or a life outside the city — is enough to entice dozens of players.
But maybe the hardest thing for “Panic” to center is the idea of just how many people are willing to risk anything short of (and maybe even including) potential manslaughter charges in order for the premise of this show to work. With all 10 episodes written by Lauren Oliver (who wrote the book the series is based on), each episode becomes like one of the Panic challenges: a tricky psychological balancing act that means far more to the people involved than the people watching.
It doesn’t help that “Panic” is juggling an entire graduating class worth of potential winners, from Heather (Olivia Welch) trying to break free from a difficult home situation to Dodge (Mike Faist) the mysterious newcomer who tends to keep to himself to Ray (Ray Nicholson) the mop-topped, open-shirted permaflirt always bent on trying to cause a ruckus. It’s Heather who eventually becomes the main conduit for the story, as she tries to deal with multiple crushes, shifting friendships, a manipulative mother, and a part-time job on a nearby ranch. This, all on top of engaging in semi-periodic ill-advised feats of athleticism for a crowd of morbidly curious peers.
Of those people who float into her life both inside and out of Panic, Ray seems to be one of the only characters to get out from under the weight of the show’s self-seriousness. While most of the members of this show are burdened with a perpetual skeptical scowl, Montgomery at least brings “Panic” some emotional peaks and valleys. Even when his smile is masking something decidedly more sinister underneath, at least it’s some kind of a counterbalance.
Matt Lankes/Amazon Studios
There’s such a pattern of distrust that runs through the nature of Panic as an enterprise that it seeps into the show itself. Past a certain point, it’s almost impossible to take everything at face value, so the show’s 10 episodes become a waiting game to see what’s left when the conspiratorial dust settles. That spells particular doom for the various “Panic” attempts at romance. Would-be flings and tenuous love triangles flit by, mostly as means to add wrinkles into how these contests unfold. Part of the show’s implicit argument for the continued existence of Panic is that Carp doesn’t offer much else to do as the school year winds down. The same seems to be true for making out with someone every once in a while.
On some level, it’s understandable that a show built around teenagers’ lives flipped upside down by a vindictive game would throw its own set of structural curveballs. But the mishmash of backstory narration — mostly coming from Heather, but passed like a relay baton to open one episode — and conscious withholding of key information from both viewer and various characters is so often in service of fashioning a mystery rather than living inside one.
The challenges themselves feel like something lost in translation between page and screen. The internal parsing out of clues to the location of the next stage in the contest is all transformed into out-loud puzzle solving. For an institution built on secrecy, a lot of these clues are dropped right in the open and are seemingly simple enough to solve after little more than a glance. “Panic” wants its namesake to be both so ominous so as to strike fear into every age-eligible Carp resident but so traceable that one police officer with a hunch can put the pieces together quicker than they’re being laid out. (There’s one villain reveal, coupled with their flagrant disregard for covering the tracks of a very important personal detail, that’s especially egregious.)
Adding to that, every new challenge feels like something from a moral panic fever dream, the kind of “you’ll never guess what teens in your area are doing” local news story that ends up debunked under the tiniest bit of scrutiny. Yet “Panic” doesn’t have anything lying under the surface of Kids in Danger. Call it “Saw”-like, call it the world’s most sadistic escape room, but these challenges aren’t meant to do anything but inflict psychological terror on the Carp teens.
Matt Lankes/Amazon Studios
Without invoking too much of a direct comparison to an existing show, it’s hard not to watch “Panic” and think of last year’s Netflix summer surprise “Outer Banks.” Where that show fully embraced the playfulness of its “what if ‘Goonies’ but high school seniors” DNA, “Panic” never seems to fully square itself with the level of danger it wants to mine for tension and drama. It’s something that could kill you, but the people who run it assign arbitrary point values. There’s a version of this show that uses the fickleness of this game to say something about how teens treat each other and what’s expected from them by their elders. But all the inconsistencies and jagged pacing and disjointed plot threads are more an indication of a show spreading itself too thin for any of it matter.
It’s not to say that “Panic” is devoid of specific charms. Heather’s eventual employer Anne (Bonnie Bedelia) is a rare adult in this series to make an impression beyond connecting families together for plot reasons. Much like Ray, when she enters the story, there’s at least some sense of an individual breaking through the sameness. For as careless as those challenge announcements are, the design of some of them are legitimately striking. Director Ry Russo-Young brings the necessary amount of scale to the challenge that makes up much of Episode 2, and there’s a surprising amount of anxiety that comes from one room late in the season filled with countless numbers of the same object dangling from the ceiling.
By the time the show arrives at its final obstacle, it’s entirely valid to ask (as precious few Carp teenagers seem to do) if all of this is worth it. Given the way this season resolves and the parting image it cues up for a possible continuation, “Panic” seems to be saying “yes.” Not everyone will agree.
“Panic” is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
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