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Panic Review: Amazon's New YA Drama Lives Up to Its Genre Forbears

Twisty and addictive, could this be the Gen Z breakthrough series Amazon's been gunning for?
  • Panic star Olivia Welch (Photo: Matt Lankes/Amazon Studios)
    Panic star Olivia Welch (Photo: Matt Lankes/Amazon Studios)

    A small Texas town. A series of dangerous — and in some cases, deadly — challenges organized by a mysterious group of “judges.” A dozen teenagers with nothing to lose.

    It sounds like the perfect setup for a blockbuster teen drama on Netflix, one that would dominate the service’s Top 10 list and produce a legion of die-hard fans. But Panic, a new series based on Lauren Oliver’s bestselling novel of the same name, is streaming on Amazon Prime Video, not Netflix. Will Gen Z even notice?

    It’s a question that plagues Amazon’s twisty, addictive YA drama. Set in the sultry Texas summer, Panic follows a group of recent high school graduates as they compete for a $50,000 cash prize and an opportunity to escape their small town. Over the course of the competition, the players are asked to face their deepest fears, and each must decide how much they’re willing to risk in order to win.

    Leading the pack is Heather Nill (played by Olivia Welch), a soft-spoken writer who decides to play Panic after a devastating encounter with her mother, Sherri (Rachel Bay Jones). Heather sees the game as her only way out of Carp, Texas, but her participation soon puts her at odds with her best friends, Natalie (Jessica Sula) and Bishop (Camron Jones). Panic is, after all, a winner-take-all game, and no matter how many times players stare down death, only one contestant can reign supreme.

    At first, author Lauren Oliver, who serves as the creator and an executive producer on the show, relies solely on this intriguing premise to drive the series. The drama’s first three episodes introduce our core trio and their fellow Carp-ites, including Dodge Mason (Mike Faist), the new kid in town determined to win the game; Ray Hall (Ray Nicholson), the high school bully and self-proclaimed “trailer trash;” and Sheriff Cortez (Enrique Murciano), the local lawman determined to put an end to Panic. We see the players participate in three increasingly-dangerous challenges, while Cortez’s officers scramble to shut down the game from across town.

    Natalie Williams (Jessica Sula) awaits instructions ahead of a Panic challenge. (Photo: Matt Lankes/Amazon Studios)

    Like many YA dramas, Panic takes a bit to get going, but by Episode 4, “Escape,” the series finds its groove, largely thanks to a no-holds-barred night of teenage debauchery (lest you forget this is a capital-T Teen Drama, these kids are constantly drinking). It’s here that Welch establishes herself as a young talent to watch: her energy radiates off the screen as Heather comes to terms with her complicated feelings for another competitor who shall not be named for fear of spoilers. Does she hate him? Or is she just afraid of what he brings out in her? In Panic’s quieter moments like these, Welch so perfectly captures the anxieties of a teenage girl struggling to position herself in the world around her, and the series, with its high concept premise, benefits greatly from the added emotional depth.

    Heather’s new romance (or plural romances, to be honest) creates a thrilling, “will they or won’t they” buzz that only intensifies over the course of ten episodes. Every teen drama needs a great ship, and Panic delivers, treating fans to the ultimate "Bad Boy with Off the Charts Sex Appeal vs. Good Guy with Best Friend Vibes" showdown. Oliver knows exactly what she’s doing here: this same debate has inflamed a thousand fandoms, from Twilight to The Hunger Games to Gilmore Girls. Obviously these are big shoes to fill, but Panic makes an admirable effort to live up to its genre inspirations.

    And that brings us to the Amazon of it all. Can Panic be Prime Video’s first teen drama sensation, or will it get lost amid the service’s dad-centric offerings like Bosch and The Man in the High Castle? (Yes, Fleabag is amazing, but it’s not exactly inspiring Zoomers to open guinea pig cafes). Amazon only recently began courting younger viewers: its first teen drama, The Wilds, debuted in December 2020 to strong reviews from critics and audiences alike. The show was renewed for a second season just eight days after its release, indicating that there’s at least some appetite for Amazon shows targeted at young Millennials and Gen Z-ers.

    Still, The Wilds’ impact was minimal compared to that of Outer Banks, Ginny & Georgia, 13 Reasons Why, and other teen-focused Netflix series. Neither service has released concrete viewership data for these titles, but if search traffic is any indication — and when it comes to teens, it probably is — Netflix is walloping Amazon in the fight for YA viewers. According to Google Trends, Outer Banks, Ginny & Georgia, and 13 Reasons Why have been searched 300% more than The Wilds over the past 18 months, and that’s a conservative estimate.

    An ad for the show at an Atlanta-area bookstore. (Photo: Jilly Lustig)

    But Amazon isn’t waving the white flag. The streaming service is launching a media blitz ahead of the Panic release in an attempt to draw new viewers. Bookstores are promoting both Oliver’s 2014 novel and the new series (as seen above), social media is covered in targeted ads featuring the trailer, and Audible, an Amazon-owned property, has ordered a three-part “novella” featuring the voices of Welch, Nicholson, and Jones.

    Netflix may currently have the market cornered on teen dramas, but it only takes one show to eat away at its dominance. Panic, with its thrilling plot, steamy romance, and all-out marketing campaign, could be just that series — provided that teens can get their parents’ Amazon Prime password.

    The entire first season of Panic drops on Amazon Prime Video Friday May 28.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Panic, Amazon, Netflix, Olivia Welch, Teen TV