Bingeable, high-stakes teen dramas seem to be all the rage on the streaming services, from Netflix’s teens-on-a-treasure-hunt Outer Banks, to Amazon’s distaff Lost/Lord Of The Flies riff The Wilds, to Netflix’s scandalous ballet-school series Tiny Pretty Things. Some of these are more successful than others, but putting teen girls at the center seems like a good bet. It definitely helped The Wilds, while Outer Banks faltered by sorting female characters into one of two categories: dream girl or tomboy.
Amazon’s latest teen adventure series, Panic, succeeds through the twists of the game and the strength of Olivia Welch’s multifaceted portrayal of Heather, our protagonist who’s both dream girl and tomboy. Based on Lauren Oliver’s YA novel and developed by the author, Panic is so named for an underground game that takes place in the unappealing hamlet of Carp, Texas, which even the area’s well-off residents are dying to escape. And winning the game of Panic may be the ticket: Every summer, the graduating high school seniors get a chance to compete, which involves a lot of trumped-up yet terrifying dares, like crossing a highway blindfolded, being buried alive in a coffin, or spending the night in an abandoned, reportedly haunted house. It’s not every fictional series that has a “don’t try this at home” disclaimer attached.
As season one of Panic opens, the stakes are even higher this year; two local kids actually died during the game the previous round, so local law enforcement will be trying even harder to shut the game down. But the teens are determined—not just because it’s tradition, like “The Lottery”—but because the winner of Panic gets $50,000, a.k.a. a chance at a new life somewhere else.
No one appears to want that chance more than Heather, who lives in a trailer park and whose own mother swiped the cash stash she’d been saving for college, squashing her meager dream of going to Longhorn State to study accounting (she actually wants to be a writer). Heather has lost her summer job, and with no other options, risking it all in Panic seems like the only chance she has to take care of not only herself, but also her little sister, Lily (Kariana Karhu). She also snags a gig working on the farm of Anne (a welcome Bonnie Bedelia), who happens to host a tiger on her property, which slinks around like a predatory Chekhov’s gun.
But Heather has some formidable competition, including her own best friend with Hollywood aspirations, Natalie (Jessica Sula); new kid/rodeo rider Dodge (Mike Faist), who harbors a secret revenge plot; and the bullyish Ray (Ray Nicholson), with whom Heather has an uncomfortable flirtation, although she’s torn between Ray and Bishop (Camron Jones), her bookish best friend.
The core cast of teens is solid, but Panic frays at the edges. The mean kids in Ray’s clique never move past caricature; Dodge’s trajectory gets a bit convoluted; and the actual villain is rather obvious from the get-go. None of the fledgling teen romances really land; Ray can be such a tool, we’re as disappointed as Heather’s actual friends that she’d give him the time of day. Also, casting notable Gen X actresses like Nancy McKeon (The Facts Of Life) and Moira Kelly (The Cutting Edge) as Carp’s older generation and then barely using them at all is a waste.
Still, Heather’s rapidly escalating efforts in the game, the core of Panic, will keep viewers hitting the “Next Episode” button until they are felled by exhaustion. The Panic clues become more difficult to decipher as the stunts increase exponentially in danger, until, like the contestants, we’re holding our breath to see what the next death-defying task will be. As our player stand-in, Welch is ideal: smart, brave, and determined. We can’t help but cheer when she conquers another challenge and even tries for an increased degree of difficulty—during an already perilous task, like jumping off of a cliff at night—to get extra points. The fact that she’s trying to carve out a safe life for herself and her sister away from her drug-addled mother adds a sympathetic foundation to her effort, unlike her more well-off friends, who have less at stake. Welch’s plucky, never-flagging resolve makes Heather a hero who’s easy to root for: She’s clearly terrified at the top of that cliff, but also determined to conquer those fears as the only possible path to winning the game.
Even as Panic’s first (hopefully not only) season draws to a close, questions remain: What is in this for Diggins (David Thompson), the somewhat benevolent game emcee, and Summer (Leslie Ann Leal), his assistant? What is the role of the enigmatic, anonymous Panic judges? The origins of the game also remain a mystery, but that’s likely by design, ideally offering a lead-in for Panic’s prospective second season. However, it would be tough for next year’s contestants to rival this group; much as we’d hate to see Heather still stuck in claustrophobic Carp, it would be difficult to draft a contender who could rival Welch’s skill in steering the audience through the various travails of Panic. For an enjoyable summer vacation binge-watch, the teens should eat this up—but please, kids, again: Don’t try this at home.