4 out of 5

Created by: Lauren Oliver

covers season 1

In the small town of Carp, Texas, the yearly to-do for teens is a game of escalating dares called Panic, the prize for which is a lump cash sum. This year, while participating or spectating Panic, Heather (Olivia Welch), Dodge (Mike Faist), Natalie (Jessica Sula), and Ray (Ray Nicholson), also find themselves caught up in the details of a past controversy – Dodge’s sister was paralyzed in a hit-and-run, and the purported culprit is hintedly mixed up in a mire of Panic-related business.

In the show Panic, two of the main storyline focuses are a yearly to-do for teens – a titularly-named game of escalating dares, the prize for which is a lump cash sum – and a past controversy of one lead’s sister having been paralyzed in a hit-and-run, with the purported culprit hintedly mixed up in a mire of Panic-related business.

Two of the stupider, unconvincing, and boring elements of Panic are the storylines concerning the yearly, titularly-named game, and the mystery of resolving the whodunnit of the hit-and-run controversy.

The game itself makes approximately zero sense, and is logistically ridiculous. It’s also inconsistent. Part of the justification for the cash reward is that Panic is deadly: the challenges are, nearly from the start, underlined with a ‘you could die from this’ sense, which only gets more explicit and obvious as it goes along, and contestants have absolutely died in the past, and yet, you frequently get people bailing with “this isn’t what I signed up for!” type replies and shock. The Unknowns regarding who runs and organizes the events are also treated with equal who-cares insouciance, and twist-revealing importance, as befits the drama needs of whichever episode and scene. And the setup required for these things are Saw-level complex, somehow done all without the participants or cops – who are obviously against the game – having any awareness of the events prior to their reveal, not to mention the lazy dynamic of only the teens being able to decipher damned blatant “clues” left around the town to indicate the time and location of the next event. (And every year’s final event, we find out, is also an established one – same thing, same spot – and yet, again, the cops be clueless, y’all!)

So: stupid. As to the hit-and-run bit, this is all too clearly just tacked on to add some drama and mystery padding; it’s a justification for bringing a relative stranger – Dodge – to town, but then it mostly hangs in the background with occasional dun-dun-dun moments, leading up to the kind of revelations that make you question how hard it would’ve been to find them out at the start, had anyone put in effort beyond accusations and glowering. Plus: Evil Badguy Is Behind It All, and that’s also rather obvious from the start, even if some of the details can’t be known until later on.

Eh… what’s up with that rating, then?

Well, here’s the weird thing: though those two easily criticized elements are, as pointed out, essentially the main focuses… you can primarily ignore them. It’s almost humorous how some of the games are skipped over later on, and, as mentioned, the who-paralyzed-Dodge’s-sister bit is generally backburnered. What’s more important is the theme these setups support: the feeling of being trapped by life. While this is not uncommon in a teen drama, especially ones set in small towns, Panic delivered it in a much more true-to-life, balanced fashion than I feel we’re normally delivered in TV aimed at the same-aged demographic. Heather is our POV, and fits the template of has-a-neglectful-parent / lives-poor / raises-her-sister-herself / is-really-smart-but-can’t-avoid-college character who would generally have some type of Ugly Duckling transformation over the course of the series, and become very independent and strike out on their own, while also kinda submitting to societal norms of getting a boyfriend and a good job and etc. In Panic, though – the show – reality kind of remains as the status check at all points. This actually holds true for the other character templates as well: the good looking friend, Natalie; the local badboy, Ray; the nice-guy rich kid, Bishop (Camron Jones) – in all cases, Panic (as helmed by its creator and writer of the source-material book, Lauren Oliver) doesn’t stray into absolute fantasy for these teens, telling relatively “true” tales. They maybe can’t escape the traps of their lives, but they can grow to accept and understand them, and then take them on their own terms – a form of escape.

The way this translates into the dialogue and character interactions is interesting: while having all the surface level details of standard teen fare, our leads’ discuss things with refreshing practicality and, generally, logic. Secrets aren’t withheld. Conclusions made feel reasonable. That doesn’t mean there aren’t relationship mixups and arguments that end in walk-off huffs, but these don’t feel manipulative – they feel like legitimate misunderstandings or happenstances between age-appropriate humans. This actually also extends to the adults, both from intrapersonal perspectives, and the procedural cop side of things. While there’s the big ol’ “the cops really can’t figure this game out?” plot gap, the officers aren’t treated like country bumpkins; if you all yourself to accept that gap, the procedural elements are actually quite good, and the juggling of professional and personal lives (with cops’ kids participating in Panic) works as well.

There’s also the production: Carp feels and looks like a small town. Not a Hollywood small town, and not one with forced accents and cheek, but a place you can actually visit.

It’s as though, by overlaying these sore-thumb, dunderheaded plot pieces on top, Panic was able to get away with much stronger, more nuanced character work underneath than one might expect. I should qualify that that doesn’t absolutely equate to a fantastic show – you still have these stupid bits to deal with, and again, thematically, it’s not anything new – but thanks to quality writing and great casting in Olivia Welch, who gives her role a ton of weight, it comes across as surprisingly fresh most of the time. Every time it chooses not to indulge in typical dramatics – which is often – it earns itself more viewer faith, making the ten episodes an easy watch. And since I’d rather encourage such series, I think that’s worth the extra notice of a bump in my ranking.