Friday, May 28, 2021

Panic, on Amazon

There was an old New Yorker cartoon labeled “Economists Use the Dullest Examples,” wherein the dialogue bubble says: “I’d be happy to explain congressman, suppose you had four carp…” This series is set in Carp, Texas. Most of the year, life is indeed deadly dull there, but not after high school graduation. That is when recent grads engage in “Panic,” a game that is basically Fear Factor crossed with The Hunger Games. Unfortunately, two kids died during the previous year, but the game continues anyway in Lauren Oliver’s ten-episode adaptation of her YA novel, Panic, which premieres today on Amazon.

The last grad to survive a series of challenges, like walking through traffic blind-folded, wins fifty grand. It is not a princely sum, but it will allow you to leave town and start fresh. Heather Nill had no intention of playing, but than her disaster of a mother stole her junior college money to cover her car repair costs. Nill’s bestie Nathalie Williams is initially angry they must compete against each other, but they soon make a deal to play cooperatively. However, unbeknownst to Nill, Williams makes the same deal with Dodge Mason, the mysterious recent transfer student.

Of course, Panic is completely unsanctioned. In fact, the sheriff has a very personal reason for shutting it down. He wants to know who are this year’s student judges, because they should know those from the previous year. The contestants would also like to know, especially as the challenges get increasingly dangerous and personal.

really is just like dozens of other Hunger Games derivatives, but the execution is super-slick. Several episodes were helmed by talented feature filmmakers, like Ry Russo Young (Before I Fall), Megan Griffiths (Lucky Them), Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon), and Viet Nguyen (Crush the Skull), the latter of whom probably directed the most effective episode (featuring a haunted house challenge).

It also helps that the young cast is surprisingly charismatic and they mostly look age-appropriate. Olivia Welch solidly anchors the film, portraying Nill with a nice balance of vulnerability and resilience. She also has appealing chemistry with Ray Nicholson’s Ray Hall, the delinquent, who actually seems more helpful to Nill than her supposed friends. Mike Faist and Jessica Sula also nicely tease out Mason and Williams’ revelations, which really helps keep viewers hooked. Plus, Enrique Murciano starts to redeem himself for the awfulness of
Tell Me Your Secrets with his work as Sheriff Cortez.

Panic is highly watchable, but ten episodes is still way too long. Obviously, Oliver was way too enamored with her own printed words, because the series should have been compressed into six installments—eight at the max. There is definitely flab in the middle (and its a little over-the-top at the end), but the young cast powers through it anyway. It is a guilty pleasure, but you have to give it credit for working. Recommended as the dark, lurid teen soap opera that it is, Panic starts streaming today (5/28) on Amazon Prime.