What is the story about?
In Carp, a small town in Texas, graduating high school seniors face off against each other in Panic, a series of daring, and often life-threatening, challenges to win a handsome pot of money, so that they can break out of the suffocating culture of the town and move away. Heather, a teenage girl who struggles for money, saves money so that she does not have to play the game and can instead get enrolled in an accounting course. However, when her alcoholic mother decides to steal the money, Heather is left with no choice but to participate in Panic, where she competes with other teenagers, including her best friend Natalie, the mysterious Dodge and the brash Ray. However, as the police investigate the game and the teenagers keep advancing in the game, Heather realizes someone may be controlling the game for another sinister purpose.
OTT platforms officially seem to be at that stage where they risk killing the American young adult genre by recycling a done-to death story, much in the same way that Hollywood had almost killed off the romantic comedy in the 1990s. On paper, the premise of Panic seems novel: a group of teenagers face off against each other in deadly challenges to win money and better their lives, almost like a lo-fi Fight Club, away from the prying eyes of parents and the police. However, the big problem of the screenplay is its failure to establish the reason why the teenagers are putting themselves in harm's way. Heather is obviously playing the game to win money, but there are other people playing it just for kicks.
Carp is like any other town in America's hinterland right now: a microcosm of the country's broken middle-class dreams, with teenagers and their families struggling to get by, and wealth inequity increasing by the day. Panic works best when it focusses on the adults and their regrets on how their lives have turned out, with alcoholism and gambling running riot in the system. However, creator Lauren Oliver, who also authored the original novel, is so hell-bent on focussing on the social pressures faced by teenagers that she loses the plot completely. The writing is pedestrian, with all the standard tropes of the genre present: the mandatory love-triangle, the traumatized teen with a msyterious backstory, and lots and lots of sexual tension. I'm not kidding, but there's a sequence when two characters try to get it on in the middle of one of their missions. Obviously, this is all to service its core target audience, which is a younger demographic, but adults won't enjoy this at all.
And what about the hallowed game itself? The competition, that is supposed to serve as the centrepiece, is built up like an urban legend. You are expected to believe that every teenager growing up in Carp wants to play Panic in spite of not knowing who the masters are. The stunts are constantly portrayed as life-threatening, and apparently vary every year, but no one is allowed to talk about it with parents or the police. Also, once the identity of the character rigging the competition becomes clear, you have to wonder how depraved and jobless a person would have to be to bet on the antics of teenagers in order to earn boatloads of money. Believe me when I say this, but even Khatron Ke Khiladi is better than this hotchpotch concocted by Oliver and her team.
As Heather, Olivia Welch is all right. Panic is as much an exploration of Heather's insecurities about her present and fture as much as it is about a dangerous game, and Welch is assured in her part. Mike Faist is okay as the mysterious Dodge, whose back-story unspools like a cassette throughout the season. Jessica Sula's Natalie is the most confusingly-written character in the series, almost as if the makers thought a teenage girl could not have a more complicated arc. The find of the series, however, is Ray Nicholson, who brings earnestness and vulnerability to his role of the rakish charmer Ray, almost reminding you of his father, Jack Nicholson, at times. The rest of the cast is passable.
Music & Other Departments
Jeff Mossa's production design is all right. Todd McMullen's camerawork is okay.
There are sequences featuring a tiger that are mildly entertaining.
The screenplay is muddled. It tries to pack in slasher and thriller elements, and also focus on the broken middle-class dreams of America's interiors, while being a character study. The writing lacks freshness, with all the standard tropes and trappings of the young adult genre simply copy-pasted to the fictional town of Carp.
Did I enjoy it?
I enjoyed the portions with the adults more.
Do I recommend it?
Teenage audiences might like it, but adults, not so much.