By: Kayla Caldwell
PANIC is the perfect lazy day binge, and Amazon Prime Video did everyone the favor of releasing it Memorial Day Weekend, so you can do exactly that. Trust me, once you start it, quite like that first chip from a Pringles can, it’s pretty difficult to stop.
PANIC is big Netflix Outer Banks vibes, which may sound like an insult, but is intended as the exact opposite. I loved Outer Banks and its beautiful juxtaposition of crappy parents and angsty, horny teens with the almost fantasy epic of treasure hunting.
PANIC takes itself seriously in much the same way. It, too, follows a group of young people in a small, southern (this time Texas) town. Some kids feel isolated because though their parents’ wealth makes them seem lucky, the reality of their daily lives is much less so; while others feel isolated and small because of their sheer lack of any wealth at all.
Protagonist Heather (Olivia Welch) not only has to pay her way through college, for a career she doesn’t even want (accounting), but also has to worry about the safety and well-being of her younger sister Lily (Kariana Karhu), because her mother (Rachel Bay Jones) is constantly on-off with her abusive, drug addict boyfriend. Thankfully, she’s been saving all summer and is only about $500 short of finally getting out of Carp, and paving the way for a [financially] successful career.
Initially, Heather is not interested in the dangerous and secretive game, beloved by the young people in Carp and loathed by the police. “Panic” is something of a rite of passage for graduating seniors in this town. It’s kind of Fear Factor meets fraternity pledging with the energy of every “truth or dare”-type movie ever made. Competitors earn points for each completed challenge, extra if they complete them quickly (or level up, like jumping from a higher point on a cliff than the others).
Challenges range from jumping from a cliff into the waters below or running across a tiny wooden bridge, from which a fall would almost certainly lead to death, to bespoke rounds seemingly catered to destroying everyone emotionally. Why would anyone take on such a horrible risk for a “game?” Money, of course. The winner of this year’s Panic will get $50,000. That’s more than enough for Heather to go to college, for Nat (Jessica Sula) to move to Los Angeles and pursue her dreams of acting, and for Ray (Ray Nicholson) to prove to everyone he isn’t the loser the town has labeled him to be.
When Heather’s mother steals the money she’s been saving for years for college to fix her car (and probably also buy booze and drugs), she sees no other option than to join the game at the last minute, simultaneously shocking everyone and infuriating her best friend. It’s going to be a crazy summer.
PANIC has something for everyone, whether you’re there for the action, the danger, the terrible parenting, the senioritis, the “I hate being stuck in my small town” energy, or for the teen romance love triangle (that’s actually acted out by a bunch of 20-somethings, thank god). Plus, with only 10 episodes, you can easily binge this in one weekend.
The show jumps around between the game itself, all of the lives it has affected - including two teens who lost their lives the year prior - and the complicated lives of most of the competitors. There are themes of poverty, drug abuse, suicide, depression, domestic violence, and the helpless feeling that people with money can get away with anything.
There’s a particularly poignant moment when Heather vents to her best friend/sometimes lover Bishop (Camron Jones) about how unfair the whole system is. “If people… can get away with doing terrible things, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them, what’s the point of doing anything at all? What’s the point of caring?” It is a whole a** mood, my friends, especially in the current political climate.
When Bishop suggests you just have to pick your battles, even when the odds are stacked against you, Heather responds, “What if they’re always stacked the same way?” It’s clearly a means of driving the plot, as Bishop then talks about “taking the risk” when you really care about something. However, the line still resonates. As soon as I heard it, I wrote down the time stamp to come back to it, and I think that’s the special thing about PANIC.
Sure, it’s a show about a bunch of hot teens playing dangerous games and reveling in the invincible feeling of youth, but it’s also about the glass-shattering realization that being an adult doesn’t mean you are inherently good or that you have any more of an idea about what's right than your children do. It’s about the little guy saying, “You know what? I’m sick of being stepped on, and I’m going to do something about it.” It may not be the most realistic thing ever, but damn is it satisfying to watch.
There’s also series of events involving a tiger, which are both ridiculous in a “jumped the shark” kind of way, and delicious in a mood that is very much, “who cares if it’s realistic, this is great!” Also, to ease the minds of any animal lovers in here, nothing bad happens to the tiger.
PANIC has a lot of heart, and even more action. Following the gameplay will keep you clicking “play next” until, next thing you know, you’ve blown four hours and you don’t even care. I got a little worried in episode eight when things started to really unfold, and I wasn't sure if two episodes was enough for a satisfying resolution. I’m happy to report that I even wrote down all of my questions, and they pretty much all seemed sorted out by the finale.
Of course, they wisely left the ending open for another season, which I sincerely hope is produced. PANIC was a fun distraction from the existential dread of the day, and I cannot wait to be able to talk to other people about it. So check it out, streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.
Can't get enough PANIC? Check out their amazing [FREE] immersive virtual experience, inspired by the show. I was lucky enough to try it out earlier this week, and not only was it thrilling and fun, but it made me feel so clever.
Check out Sara Kinne-Lugo's review of Panic: The Experience here.