Panic revives the young adult adaptation | Small Screen | Chicago Reader

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Panic revives the young adult adaptation

The new series takes a familiar formula to unexpected places.

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There’s something oddly comforting about the young adult novel adaptation. Regardless of genre, there’s often an element of predictability to the stories and an effortless relatability to the characters that make for a satisfying viewing experience. But at a certain point, audiences of all ages were burnt out by the sheer volume of these adaptations coming out at once, especially those with a more dystopian flair: The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, The Maze Runner, among others.

After a much needed breather from the “teenagers putting themselves in life or death situations” cinematic universe, Panic is a familiar yet refreshing return to the genre. Based on the novel by Lauren Oliver—who also adapted the story for television and served as an executive producer—Panic follows a small Texas town with a dangerous tradition shrouded in mystery. Each year, high school seniors participate in a series of intense and deadly challenges for a big cash prize. Nobody knows how the game started or who is in charge of it, but it’s a golden ticket for one brave (and lucky) soul.

Panic’s leading lady Heather (a commanding Olivia Welch) has no plans to participate in their hometown version of The Purge. In fact, she’s scared for her best friend Natalie (Jessica Sula) who's dead set on winning the $50,000 prize. But with big college dreams and no real job prospects, along with a mother who constantly steals from her to make her own ends meet, Heather decides to take matters into her own hands—even if that means risking her life and her friendship.

The most successful young adult adaptations give their teenage protagonists a chance to experience a dramatized version of life outside the confines of high school. Though grounded in reality, the challenges feature high-intensity elements that will feel familiar to fans of dystopian media: jumping off of cliffs, escaping from buried coffins, fighting a tiger, walking across precarious tightropes, etc. At the end of the day, these kids are forced to face their most intimate fears—which not only puts them in intense physical danger, but also has the capacity to do some serious emotional damage.

Panic solves many of the complaints often wielded at adaptations of young adult novels. Not only did Oliver have a lot of authorial control in the writing and production of the adaptation, but the ten-episode format allows for a much richer (and more faithful) exploration of the novel’s themes and characters than a two-hour movie could. (Or if it’s like any adaptation from the 2010s: a series of two-hour movies—some of which had the gall to add a “part two” to their final installments to squeeze out as much plot, and cash, as possible).

There are elements of Panic that can feel a bit unfocused. One of the main conflicts revolves around the local police trying to put a stop to the game, but it feels circuitous and moot in comparison to the spectacle of the competition. It also takes the viewer away from the much more interesting interpersonal relationships that form (and collapse) amongst the participants—which can be just as explosive as the challenge itself.

Panic is a nail-biter of a series that, even with a familiar formula, goes to unexpected places. It’s as dramatic and pastiche as any teenage media ought to be, but the show is grounded by its standout ensemble cast that will keep you questioning everyone’s intentions. You’ll find yourself rooting for a winner until the very end, even if you have to watch through your fingers.  v

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