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In Amazon’s ‘Panic,’ hopeful high school graduates meet capitalist exploitation



Lurking around the edges of the teen romance, murder mystery and the melodrama in the new Amazon Prime series “Panic” is a grimmer — and more courageous — story about how young, hopeful teens graduate from high school … and then capitalism eats them alive.

The series was created and written by Lauren Oliver based on her own 2014 novel, though it underwent substantial revisions for television, including shifting from an upstate New York, Rust Belt town to the middle of nowhere Texas. Nonetheless, the basic concept remains the same: In the town of Carp, someone has made a version of “The Running Man” or “The Hunger Games” for the local high schoolers.

Every year, the seniors in the town high school pay into a pot, and, at the end of the summer, they can compete in a series of terrifying, deadly challenges — cliff diving, Russian roulette, automotive chicken. The winner takes home around $50,000, which is usually enough to get out of their dead-end town. The mysterious judges who organize the contest, and the contestants who participate in it, believe the contest Panic is about nerve in the face of terrifying challenges.

Panic, the contest, begins to recall reality television programs like “Survivor” or “Fear Factor,” underlining the way those shows are a kind of restaging of capitalism in miniature.

In the series, Heather Nill (Olivia Welch) lives in a trailer in Carp with her mother (Rachel Bay Jones), an irresponsible addict who steals the money Heather had been saving to enter an accounting program. Unless Heather wins Panic, she’ll be stuck in nowhere Texas forever and will have no way to protect her sister from her mom. Her misery and determination leads her to form an unexpected bond during the competition with local bully Ray Hall (Ray Nicholson), who, like her, comes from nothing and has nothing to lose.

But during Heather’s year, the competition quickly turns into an orgy of betrayal and backstabbing: Contestants form alliances and quickly dissolve them, subvert the judges and mess with each other to gain an advantage — or just out of spite. Some of the contests spiral out of control too, and, ultimately, success turned out to have less to do with grit than with a willingness to cheat (and sheer dumb luck).

Panic, the contest, begins to recall reality television programs like “Survivor” or “Fear Factor,” underlining the way those shows — with its all-against-all-for-the-prize dynamics — are a kind of restaging of capitalism in miniature. The teens in Carp get out of high school and then immediately launch into cutthroat competition, jettisoning friendship, morals, love and physical safety for that one true goal of all adulthood: cold hard cash.

The lowly workers struggling for the jackpot never have a chance to win it: Every desperate feat of sacrifice and courage just makes those with more power richer.

That point is driven home even more forcefully as the players start to realize the game — like reality television, and like capitalism — is being manipulated by somebody. Heather, Ray and the other contestants originally think they are individual agents trying to enrich themselves through fair, self-interested competition — like Uber drivers but with higher fatality rates. But they discover that other, more powerful, shadowy figures are actually using them for their own agenda and enrichment, and there is no real way for them to get ahead.

Panic the contest is supposed to be a meritocracy in Carp, in which skill and/or bravery and/or ruthlessness win the prize. But, in fact, the lowly workers struggling for the jackpot never have a chance to win it: Every desperate feat of sacrifice and courage just makes those with more power richer.

That’s how exploitation works.

The show is especially good at showing the ways in which the disempowerment of both poor people and young people can make the lives of poor young people into a living hell. Heather does everything we’re all told is “right”: She works hard in school; she saves money; she focuses on a dull, solidly practical career in accounting. But without parental resources or parental support, even modest dreams, doggedly pursued, are unattainable. Ray, meanwhile, says bitterly that he’s discarded, disposable trash — and the series shows, with chilling resolve, that, in fact, is exactly how adults and the town authorities see him.

“Panic” isn’t perfect: The ending is a bit too easy and its handling of race is clumsy. Ray’s main competition for Heather’s affection is Bishop (Camron Jones), who is Black and wealthy, while Heather’s best friend Natalie (Jessica Sula) is also Black. The series has a lot to say about Bishop’s and Natalie’s unexamined prejudice toward poor people, but nobody ever says anything about the racism that would likely be directed against Bishop and Natalie. The result is a show about American capitalism in which, against all the evidence, the main victims of exploitation and discrimination are white people.

Still, for an obviously derivative piece of young adult fluff, the series is surprisingly thoughtful and affecting. “We all have the same fear,” one voice-over says. “That we’re heading nowhere but a dead end.”

For Heather, all options close down — and even when she throws herself from a cliff, she finds someone has erected a wall for her to slam into. “Panic,” in its best moments, suggests that facing down individual demons doesn’t really matter when the demons can make money off of you, whether you stand your ground or run from them. That’s a bleak worldview. But so is capitalism.

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