Art should make you feel something. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad in theory, just as long as it makes you feel something. The fact I felt nothing while watching Amazon’s new young adult series Panic was the first strike against it.
Created by Lauren Oliver and adapted from her 2014 book of the same name, the 10-episode first season is set in Carp, a small, dead-end town in rural Texas where every summer willing members of the graduating class participate in a game called Panic for a chance to win a large pot of money they’ve all pooled together. The game involves a series of increasingly dangerous challenges meant to test the teens’ fears, and according to the show’s heroine, Heather Nill (Olivia Welch), winning the game is the only way anyone ever escapes Carp. It’s a game that is supposedly built and sustained on collective desperation, one that everyone has a reason for playing. But for most of the show’s first season, the town feels small but not exactly the type of stagnant or depressed you’d expect to create a culture in which teens would be desperate enough to put one’s life on the line just for a chance of escape. The mere fact the teens managed to pool $50,000 makes one wonder how bad life actually is in Carp.
Heather’s best friend Natalie Williams (Jessica Sula) has dreams of using the money to move to Los Angeles. But her father is gainfully employed by the county sheriff’s department, they have a nice home, she has a steady job at the pharmacy, and she doesn’t seem to want for much. So aside from a few references to a dead mother, she doesn’t seem to be struggling or in dire need of immediate assistance. Others like Ray Hall (Ray Nicholson), an obnoxious teen whose father is in prison and whose shirt is always threatening to fall off, appear to be playing for the thrill of it all. He has accepted his fate as a lowlife, and he doesn’t even seem particularly bothered by the idea of staying in Carp. So of everyone playing the game, it’s Heather—who has no interest in joining the fray until her flaky single mom steals her hard-earned money for school—and town newcomer Dodge Mason (Mike Faist) who seem to be willing to do anything to win.
Having only moved to town recently, Dodge is a bit of a wild card. No one knows what to make of him, but we eventually discover he’s playing Panic to avenge a wrong that happened to his family, and that they’re wrapped up in a much larger mystery built upon multiple layers of deceit. Meanwhile, Heather wants to use the cash to pay for an accounting course even though we’re told over and over again that she loves to tell stories. We never really see her actually writing any stories, though, and that’s the show’s second strike: It always tells instead of shows.
Oliver, who also wrote the novel Before I Fall and co-founded the embattled media content and book packaging company Glasstown Entertainment, wrote all 10 episodes of Panic. While this gives the show a singular voice, it’s unfortunately to its detriment. The dialogue sometimes borders on cringe-worthy, the story lacks depth, and the characters are clichéd and razor thin. Attempts to reveal the hidden layers of some, like Ray, are admirable but don’t quite land; others are just faces in the crowd, there to deliver lines and never evolve beyond that. Meanwhile, new information seems to drop at random rather than organically, as if Oliver forgot something and hastily added it later on. Characters also sometimes make choices for no reason except the plot needs them to (and sometimes, you can argue, it doesn’t need them to). Oh, and there’s also a tiger that suddenly appears more than halfway through the season, taking it from zero to Zoo in record time.
For a series that is supposed to be a suspenseful thriller and all about stakes, it rarely feels like there are any—whether that is physical, emotional, or psychological. And this is despite the fact we’re told over and over again two teens died while playing the game the year before. I wish this was the type of show that was both fun and bad, because at least then you could enjoy it despite its shortcomings. But it never really reaches that point because it takes itself too seriously. You can argue some of the developments that occur within the story do border on realistic, especially as they relate to the central themes of poverty and people being trapped by their circumstances, unable to escape a depressing cycle of bad decisions or bad luck. But so much of the show also requires viewers to suspend their disbelief—remember, there is a tiger on the loose—that it feels like various aspects of the story are in constant opposition with one another.
If Amazon decides to renew Panic for a second season—the ending of the finale certainly implies there’s still more to come—several changes need to be made. Either lean into the more ridiculous aspects of the narrative or make a conscious effort to dig into the desperation of the town and deepen the stories of its inhabitants beyond their experiences with Panic. Because from where I sit, there’s less reason to hit play on another episode than engage with the show’s central game.
All 10 episodes of Panic premiere Friday, May 28 on Amazon Prime.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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