High-concept YA dramas, especially those involving mysterious and dangerous competitions, don’t tend to have the strongest connection with reality. On the other hand, Panic is somehow relatable in its portrayal of an entire senior class full of teenagers and their desperate bid to get out of their sleepy, dead-end town in Texas. When you’re 18, life is all about running, as fast as you can, as far as you can. The game of Panic is dangerous — so what? Every 18-year-old thinks they’re going to live forever. Two types of teenagers get caught up in Panic: those chasing an adrenaline rush and those who have no other choice.
Panic is a simple enough concept as a game: every high school graduate from the small town of Carp, Texas, is eligible to play the summer after senior year. They’ll undergo a series of dangerous challenges, being eliminated one by one until the winner is crowned, taking as their prize the grand sum of $50,000, enough to buy their way out of town and (one presumes) into a brighter future. But Panic is not without its risks. The year prior, two teenagers were killed during the game, and the police are on high alert trying to track down the mysterious judges who run Panic under a veil of anonymity.
Heather Nill (Olivia Welch) is an ambitious teenager who, by all accounts, is way too smart to get caught up in Panic: she’s earning her way out of town the old-fashioned way, having worked throughout high school to afford an accounting course at a nearby college. But when her mother steals all of her savings to replace the transmission on her car, Heather has little choice but to join the game. Over the course of her post-senior year summer, she’ll be swept up by all of Panic’s intrigues and dangers until they threaten to consume her.
The first thing you’re going to have to do to enjoy Panic is to entirely suspend your disbelief. Ignore the fact that if this police force can’t track down a large group of teens holding wild challenges within one rural community over and over again, they have to be the dumbest adults alive. It’s also best not to dwell on the idea that if Panic is supposedly a town tradition, how is it that so few people know literally any of the details about it? And please don’t bother looking up any of the ages of the cast members, especially the menfolk, who, even by teen drama standards, aren’t passable as recent high school graduates.
But if you’re willing to look beyond plot holes and contrivances, there is something about Panic that draws you in. The hopelessness that compels these teenagers to risk their lives for a chance to escape their hometown, one that has few opportunities for their future, is immediately compelling. The fear of being stuck, forced to languish in poverty, and live the same difficult, unexciting lives of their parents outweighs the fear of heights or ghosts or creepy crawlies. And there’s a clear socio-economic factor at play within the conversation of Panic: those who are driven to get out of town and can afford to by any other means wouldn’t risk the dangers of the game. So that just leaves the truly desperate and the thrillseekers: both of which perceive themselves as having nothing to lose.
Olivia Welch, Ray Nicholson (Jack Nicholson’s son, who plays Ray Hill, an infuriating meathead with hidden depths), and Mike Faist (Dodge Mason, a mysterious, charismatic outsider with ulterior motives for entering Panic) are the clear standouts of the cast. They bring nuance to their otherwise straightforward archetypes and the hint of something more complex lurking beneath the surface. Their character moments within the narrative arc are when it’s easiest to become emotionally invested in Panic and compensate for the lukewarm mystery built-in between large-scale set pieces of the actual game. It’s these characters who bring a sense of energy to the proceedings, which is all too often squandered whenever the story inexplicably shifts its focus to the adults in town, trying to make sense of Panic.
Panic has its share of flaws, but if you’re in the market for a compulsively watchable teen drama that doesn’t require much intellectual commitment from the viewer, it might just be the perfect summer show. The young cast has a magnetic quality despite the inherent silliness of the material. There’s a genuine poignancy to Heather’s plight as she struggles to avoid becoming her mother, with the confusing remnants of high school relationship dynamics swirling around her. Just sit back, relax, and let the games begin.