If there's one thing you can bet on when a novelist adapts their book into a series, it is that the source material remains more or less untouched. Panic is not just written by Lauren Oliver for the screen, she is the show’s creator as well.
For those unfamiliar with the popular young adult novel it is based on, things can start off slow and predictable with this teen mystery-drama. The feeling of having watched a hodgepodge of the same tropes over the years (film and TV) hits you.
The premise is, perhaps, not the most original. In the back-of-beyond town of Carp, Texas, several graduating seniors from high school (most of whom hail from less-than-privileged backgrounds) compete in a series of risky challenges to win a pot of money that guarantees them a way out.
For some, that’s a way to fund their otherwise unaffordable college education, for others, it’s a way to freedom, a way to escape the dead-end existence their parents are saddled with.
Doesn't sound like the most ingenious idea set in American suburbia, does it? Give it a few episodes, and it promises to be rather watchable. Panic begins lethargically, and by the end of episode three, you’re just about establishing the main players and the rules of the game. It is only in later episodes does one realise why things take a while to get off the starting blocks.
Heading the primary list of characters is Heather Nill (Olivia Welch), a smart and level-headed girl who has her sights set on a future beyond the town of her childhood. True to her nature, she doesn’t feel the need to compete in a meaningless and risky competition in order for her dreams to be fulfilled. Her prudence has ensured that a substantial amount of money has been saved over the years through jobs.
Her life isn’t without complication, though; she is responsible for an unstable mother and a very young sister. Natalie Williams (Jessica Sula) is one of Heather's closest friends. She comes from a well-to-do environment, and her father holds the post of captain in the local police department. Beneath the cheery and cheeky demeanour, there is more to Natalie than meets the eye.
Bishop Moore (Camron Jones) is close friends with Heather and Natalie. While he regards the former as his best pal, he harbours feelings for her, and vice versa. He too, like Natalie, comes from a rich family.
At first glance, Ray Hall (Ray Nicholson) is your typical attention-seeking disruptor with a high appetite for risk-taking and bullying. And finally, there’s Dodge Mason (Mike Faist), the new and unknown kid, whose back story, everybody playing the game, wants in on.
The rules are fairly straightforward - complete each task assigned to the best of your ability to earn points. While these may be standard (with the difficulty of challenges increasing every round), the names and faces behind the competition are an enigma. No one is aware of its original creator. Judges are not made public, and they change every year.
Each new round is presented to contestants in the form of a riddle or puzzle (appearing under competition symbols at specific junctures all over town) in order to circumvent law enforcement. With two kids dying in their series of dares last year, the police is hell bent on shutting down the operation for good.
In tenor, Panic shares similarities with 13 Reasons Why. Teenage bonding and motivations, the need to belong, love, lust and heartbreak, alienation, suicide, and the build-up of tension overlap. And yet, Panic differentiates itself.
The first season makes as much of an impact as its predecessor. Its moments of melodrama are overshadowed by some fine performances starting with Olivia Welch.
Welch accords her principal character much maturity as she grapples with the insecurities of a young adult living in small-town America. Despite all her instances of "keeping it together" she is burdened with quite a bit, and it shows.
Heather's strained relationship with her perpetually broke mother (prone to poor choices) pushes her to take untoward risks and question her judgement. She is a not a fully formed adult as yet. She may be adept at picking up the pieces at home, but her personal life is all over the place.
This reflects in her romantic endeavours. Should she come clean to Bishop about her true feelings or give in to her inexplicable attraction to Ray? The second part, with all its tension and complication, is handled expertly courtesy some excellent direction.
All those playing second fiddle to Welch’s central character do so in as believable a manner as possible. The kids’ respective back-stories make the show very watchable. The depth and nuance may be nowhere near a Sex Education, for instance, but it is strong enough to hold its own.
The mixture of mystery, danger, corruption and deceit, while acceptable up to a certain extent, could sure have been handled better. Seeing the local police department being outwitted by a bunch of teens over and over again, comes off as implausible too.
In its genre of young adult drama, Panic makes a good impression. The incredulous moments are far outweighed by believable acting performances all-round.
Creator: Lauren Oliver
Cast: Olivia Welch, Mike Faist, Jessica Sula, Ray Nicholson, Camron Jones, Enrique Murciano
Streaming On: Amazon Prime Video