How far will you go to get out of your small town? That's the answer Panic Season 1 hopes to solve.
A mysterious game with the power to change someone's life is the backdrop for Amazon Prime Video's latest addictive thriller. Challenges, town secrets, betrayals, and longstanding histories are just some of the pieces weaved into this narrative web.
Panic has an overarching mystery that will pull you in to root for your favorite characters. And it succeeds in solving some answers by the time a winner is crowned. However, its complex web of characters, plot threads, and backstories make it a hard narrative to follow at times.
[SPOILER WARNING: This review will discuss some plot points of Panic Season 1. If you have yet to binge-watch the series, finish and come back to read.]
It's no secret that my guilty pleasure is reality TV (give me anything with competition, and I'm there). And Panic Season 1 had those competitive elements mixed in with a fictional small-town mystery.
In this case, it's a grassroots underground game played amongst the graduating high school seniors in the small town of Carp, Texas.
Every small town has a secret. Ours has a game. The losers stay here where losing is what we do best. The winners get out. In Carp, Texas, out is the only place worth going. That’s why players risk their lives to win.Heather
It's a tradition for the graduating class to compete and see who wins the grand prize at the end. No one knows the official challenges until they start, and no one knows who's judging the game. All that's understood is that the prize money at the end is enough to help someone escape their town.
The series makes it clear very early on (right from Panic Season 1 Episode 1) why Panic is a huge deal for the seniors. And, why winning the competition would be worth doing anything dangerous to get the prize money.
Panic Season 1 thrives on its elusive and cryptic quality.
Whenever the characters talk about the game, they drop tidbits about its format, the competitors, and history. The series gives you just enough to understand the bare essentials of Panic to know how it's played.
There's no defined explanation of the overall rules; we're thrown right in because everyone else knows what's going on. We learn the game along the way as the characters make it past each challenge or if someone teases a fact of a past Panic.
The style helps with its addictive quality because the momentum pushes you to find out what's next. It also leads to some confusion as the story web grows and grows (we'll get into that later on).
Mixed within the game of Panic are several terrifying and dangerous challenges. The challenges push the players to face their fears and prove they're worthy of the money.
Like The Hunger Games series or 2016's NERVE, the story is at its strongest during these game rounds.
The players have the same motivation to win and survive. And, the setting is usually framed in a death-defying element (like walking across tall machines) or something using their wits (like spilling secrets on camera). They're designed so well that they give a nice energy jolt to the pacing.
The drama happening within Carp comes across as chapters until the judges reveal the next challenge. Everything deals with the relationships between the characters or the background mystery of the previous year's Panic.
Panic Season 1 knows what works, and it embraces those games for all its worth.
Speaking of the town drama, the main cast does a decent job portraying their characters and carrying the story. There's a large cast, so many moving pieces are weaving throughout.
Heather Nill (played by Olivia Welch) shines as the main protagonist. You feel her struggle trying to balance her crumbling personal life, as well as her desperation for competing in Panic. And Panic doesn't shy away from showing Heather's faults.
She stumbles throughout Panic Season 1, like in her complicated flirtation with Ray Hall (Ray Nicholson) or her performance in the competition.
Heather is a flawed character; that quality makes her more believable and grounded. The quality also adds layers to the toxic relationship with her mother or her protective side of her sister.
Dodge Mason (Mike Faist), Natalie Williams (Jessica Sula), and Ray add that extra bit of energy to the competition.
The characters are portrayed in a way that rounds out Heather's story, but they each stand on their own. Their reasons for taking part in Panic make sense, and their progression suits the set-up of their stories.
Natalie acts like an aspiring star with hopes of leaving her town and making it big in Hollywood. Ray comes across as the town's bad boy who is so wrong in all the right places. And Dodge is the mysterious newcomer ready to throw a wrench in everyone's plans.
Their individual mysteries aren't the most interesting parts of Panic Season 1; they come across like filler at times and bloat the already complex plot. However, their characteristics and stories are needed to shape the journey of the competition.
Two main romances get the most attention: Natalie/Dodge and the love triangle of Heather/Ray/Bishop. Between the two, Heather's complicated hook-ups with Ray had the most promise of fire and chemistry.
Ray had all the qualities of the guy they shouldn't be dating but was strangely attracted to. Heather was hooked on him; their connection felt like something they couldn't quit, even though they were all wrong for each other.
Heather: You could get in trouble for just watching.
Dodge: I don’t want to watch. I want to play.
On the other hand, Bishop's connection with Heather came across as two best friends who were relying on their past crushes to push their romance.
There wasn't any heat between them. The pair had the romance and the tender moments that would make anyone root for them, but the connection felt mostly in the friend zone. Like Natalie and Dodge, it didn't have the same punch at first.
Don't get me wrong, I rooted for Natalie and Dodge, and they had many cute moments that brought them together. However, Dodge's stand-offish quality and cryptic secrets made it hard for the couple to dive deeper. He didn't want to let her into his life, so it affected them long-term.
Panic Season 1 has a character problem, not so much from the main group of people, but from having a large number of those involved in the story.
Current contestants, police officers, family members, random civilians, and past players were just some of the individuals who would pop up now and again.
It becomes tiring having to pinpoint each person's connection and remembering how they fit into the story. Sure, their appearances add weight to the narrative, but after so many underdeveloped people get included, the names floating around spreads the web too wide.
And, their impact on Panic and the mystery overall don't get the attention they deserve.
We don't get to learn more about these players and individuals except for the bits needed. They're essentially exposition dumps to round out the town and the background players in the game.
The game itself also reaches a point where it goes off the rails.
What are the rules of Panic? How do the points play a part in the rounds? How did the judges plan this out in secret? Is the game truly fair for everyone?
Diggins: For all you virgins out there, a quick reminder: a jump from the high point will get you a 25-point bonus.
Summer: How about a jump from Devil’s Drop?
Diggins: And for anyone dumb or drunk enough for some questionable life choices, there’s always a jump from Devil’s Drop. A jump from the Drop will get you an extra 50 points and immunity at a next challenge of your choice.
The small tidbits teased us to get hooked, but the overall set-up seemed directionless after a few rounds and moving along as the players got there. Elaborate challenges were used to cover up what would've been an easy answer.
All Panic Season 1 needed to do was clarify how the current game, and the previous year's game, was played. That clarity could've helped make the narrative less confusing than it actually was.
Panic Season 1 needed fewer threads tying things together.
In addition to each character's side-plots, there was also the competing storylines of the main Panic game played between the seniors AND the police station trying to stop the game by deducing what happened during the previous year's Panic. Naturally, the plot threads would cross together and shape the story.
Natalie: When we win Panic, we don’t have to worry about jobs.
Heather: [To Bishop] What did I tell you, right? She’s serious.
Natalie: You guys should be rooting for me!
Heather: People died last year, Natalie.
Natalie: People die in bathtubs and in car accidents.
Heather: Especially when they’re walking blindfolded across the freeway.
Separately, both plots were interesting for how they approached Panic (one playing the game and the other figuring out the history). The problem, however, was that the two storylines felt like separate shows fighting for the same airtime.
There were no stakes in the sheriff's station figuring out why Jimmy and Abby died during the previous year's Panic. It was public knowledge that past contestants had died before and that whoever were the judges the previous year had possibly left the town by then.
If they wanted to stop Panic, they could've ensured patrols were done to prevent the game from going on.
Connecting the plots gave the ending a much-needed villain, but it wasn't a satisfying reveal. There was no strong build-up to point at Sheriff Cortez, and the plot had become too complex with all the different layers and characters.
Like, there was no need for the D-plot of Abby's connection to the photographer. There could've been an easier way to inform the police of the underground betting of Panic, which in turn would save time.
Sheriff Cortez manifested as the villain too late in the game. If his sabotaging and manipulation had been more evident throughout Panic Season 1 (specifically, in the current game), the need to stop him would've been greater.
Hopefully, the next villain makes their threat level known. And with the game expanding outside of tradition, it could have deeper consequences than an underground betting plot.
Last Thoughts From The Judges:
Who won the previous year's Panic: Hunt Kenny, Myra Campbell, or Shay O'Reilly? It wasn't made clear, except that Jimmy was in the finals, and he died.
Players were dropping like flies. If they didn't show up to a challenge, I assumed they were just eliminated without any fanfare.
Natalie is a terrible friend to Heather, regardless of her apologizing. It shouldn't matter if she needed to compete or not.
- The side-plot of Sheriff Cortez getting Dodge in the game and lying about the car crash was needlessly complicated. Did he expect to keep doing it after Panic was done?
Now, over to you, Panic fans!
What did you think of Panic Season 1?
Will another game of Panic be started in the town? Who has the better shot of surviving as a couple: Ray/Heather or Dodge/Natalie? What was your favorite competition?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Panic Season 1 is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.
Justin Carreiro is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.