(This article contains some very minor spoilers for the debut season of the television series “Panic” on Amazon Prime Video)
I had no idea what “Panic” was about when I first read a one-sentence plot description. Some kind of YA story about teens playing a dangerous game in hopes of being able to leave town? My brain, incorrectly, decided to interpret that as some kind of small-scale “Hunger Games” kind of thing.
Instead, “Panic” is just a teen drama. It’s got mystery and intrigue and drugs and criminal enterprises and all that fun stuff, but it’s also grounded in reality. Here we’ve got a story about regular kids in some nowhere small town in Texas who play a sort of dare game that involves fun stuff like jumping off a very high cliff into a lake, breaking into somebody’s house and stealing stuff, walking blindfolded across a scary old railway bridge, etc. Whoever does every challenge and makes it to the end wins $50,000.
There are some very big ways in which “Panic” is not an accurate vision of the South. It wants to be colorblind, for one thing — despite taking place in Texas with a diverse cast, there was only one reference that I noted across all ten episodes to race, and that single reference was a veiled one. That’s pretty much how it treats most real-world social issues. By kinda acting like they’ve been dealt with already.
It’s annoying. If “Riverdale” can do a plotline about conversion therapy, “Panic” probably could stand to be at least a bit more socially aware.
I find that aspect of the series to be frustrating because it otherwise nails that Southern vibe that I remember from my own upbringing down there. That life where it feels like the only things to do for fun around here are go to a movie, hang out at the gas station or find some old barn in the woods to do drugs in. Where you and your friends sit in the yard next to a river on mismatched law chairs, with random bits of trash all over the place for some reason. Where folks like to get drunk on a little speedboat.
That life where sometimes you randomly meet a guy who looks like this. Or, sometimes, many of them if you end up in the wrong bar or church.
You take that setting, and then toss in all the YA character types you can think of — the poor teen who’s really smart, the guy who everybody thinks is trash but is actually not, the secretly evil authority figure, the best friend with a big secret, and so on. And then throw on a very modern and vibey electronic soundtrack from composers Isabella Summers (the “Machine” from Florence + the Machine) and Brian Kim, with a bunch of complementary needle drops.
That’s “Panic.” A cup of “Riverdale,” a few spoonfuls of “The Spectacular Now,” a dash of “Maze Runner,” and a heaping pile of teens getting into trouble in the woods while cool music plays.
It’s not for everyone. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked so well on me were I not a Southern boy myself. It doesn’t tell the greatest story you’ll ever hear, for sure. It’s the kind of show where the mysteries are far more compelling than the reveals, and so I think it loses a bit of air in the last few episodes.
But it never loses its vibe. How far along a piece of entertainment can carry you on vibe alone is certainly gonna vary from person to person. But if you’re the type who can vibe out with a trashy teen drama, “Panic” might just be the show for you.