A teenage girl participating in Panic





Lauren Cook

TV Series Review

“Carp is the capital of nothing – nothing happening, nothing changing, nothing you want to see or do.”

So says Heather Nill, recent high school graduate and lifetime resident of the tiny town of Carp, Texas. If she wants any chance of getting out, however, she’ll have to compete in this summer’s game of Panic.

Any new high school graduate can play in Panic, but only one can win. Participants compete for a huge cash prize, which guarantees them a ticket out of the crushing poverty of Carp—a ticket very few of them will ever have a chance to get otherwise.

Simple, right? Not exactly.

The games began out of boredom—there’s not much to do for a teenager in a Carp—but have escalated into a tournament with literal life-or-death stakes that the teens keep secret from the rest of the town. When a classmate brings up the game to Heather, she’s quick to reply, “There’s no such thing.” If they pretend it doesn’t exist, maybe it’ll go unnoticed by the town’s adult population.

Keeping the secret of Panic is a little more complicated now, since the games the year before ended with two people dead, and local authorities are now on high alert. Still, Panic must go on—and both Heather and her best friend Natalie really need that money.


Panic is based on the 2014 novel of the same name by author Lauren Oliver, who also serves as the sole writer of the television adaptation. The series follows Heather, a level-headed and by-the-books aspiring writer. Initially, she wants nothing to do with Panic; while Natalie is determined to win in order to move to Hollywood, and their friend Bishop is happy to sit back and watch, Heather’s set on earning the money to pay for college by herself. No need to compete in Panic.

But nothing’s that simple in Carp. Eventually, Heather finds that if she wants any chance at all at getting out of her hometown, she has to play—and this year, the stakes are higher than ever. The cash prize is $50,000, the biggest it’s ever been, and the challenges are even more dangerous. Heather’s competition includes school jock Ray Hall, who’s playing for the glory and notoriety of victory, and Carp newcomer Dodge Mason, who has his own mysterious motivations for participating.


Teen dramas are often rife with sexuality, language, and 25-year-old actors trying desperately to make us believe that they’re 17, and Panic is no exception. Teenagers discuss sex and drug use with less consideration than they would a chemistry test, setting an incredibly detrimental example for any young eyes that might be watching. It doesn’t help that Panic plays into the industry-wide issue of casting actors who are much older than their fictional counterparts (Ray Nicholson and Jessica Sula, who play Ray and Natalie on the show, are 28 and 26 respectively), creating unrealistic expectations for young teens and setting them up for insecurity and anxiety when they inevitably grow up to look different from what they see onscreen.

If you’re interested in a version of high school that includes casual sex, excessive profanity, life-endangering stunts, and completely unrealistic expectations of beauty, Panic might be for you. If not, this one might be worth skipping.

Episode Reviews

May 28, 2021: “Panic”

Heather, Bishop, Natalie, and their classmates graduate from high school, and Panic’s mysterious judges present the opening night of the games. Heather, who in the past was staunchly against participating, loses her job and begins to realize that her options for getting out of Carp are much more limited than she thought.

Teenagers drink at a graduation party, smoke cigarettes and marijuana, make suggestive references and jokes, and bully each other both verbally and physically. Natalie tells a story about a time in eighth grade when Ray spread a rumor that Heather was pregnant, and Heather got back at him by telling people he had chlamydia. Girls are shown in crop tops and bras; at the opening of Panic by the lake, the majority of the boys are shirtless while the girls are in bikinis.

It’s not just the teenagers acting questionably, however; Heather’s mother Sherri smokes constantly and wears a low-cut shirt, and Heather accuses her of spending all their money on drugs and alcohol. Language is prevalent; the f-word is used over twenty times, while the s-word is used seven, and God and Jesus’ names are taken in vain frequently.

Heather and Sherri do not have the ideal mother/daughter relationship, with Sherri often borrowing her daughter’s hard-earned money and Heather responding with blatant disrespect. The tense atmosphere boils over into a huge, profanity-laced fight that ends with Heather stealing her mother’s car keys and leaving.

The episode opens with a disclaimer that warns viewers that the actions they’re about to see are performed by professionals and should not be tried at home—a strange opening for a teen drama, but one it lives up to. Teenagers are placed in dangerous and sometimes life-threatening situations: an opening montage describing Panic shows one girl being buried alive while another is blindfolded and attacked by a swarm of bees. The main event at the opening of the competition (the “Jump”) requires potential participants to jump from a lakeside cliff to solidify their entry into the game. While these situations are not overly bloody or violent—no one at the Jump is injured—the fear and the tension felt by the participants is contagious.

Despite Heather’s attitude toward her mother and a few questionable choices, she has many positive traits worth noting, including her diligence, considerate nature, and hardworking attitude; she cares deeply about others, which influences many of her actions.

May 28, 2021: “Heights”

Heather and Natalie decide to work together and split the prize money if one of them wins the game. The first challenge is held (where players must walk across a perilously high metal beam), and the Carp police pick up on a string of clues left by the judges for the participants.

Heather has a dream about jumping off of Devil’s Drop (the cliff she jumped from in the previous episode) and crashing into the rocks below, but she wakes up before the impact.

We see a flashback of a teenage boy playing Russian Roulette as part of a Panic challenge. We don’t see him actually pull the trigger, but we hear a gunshot, and it’s very clear what happened. Sergeant Langley of the Carp Police Department goes to interview Myra Campbell, the best friend of the girl who was killed in the games the summer before, who drinks from a bottle of vodka. Sheriff Cortez’s wife struggles with excessive drinking as well. The sheriff comes home to find her smoking a cigarette and drinking a glass of wine, clearly not her first of the evening.

Natalie is obviously interested in Carp newcomer Dodge Mason romantically, and she eyes him suggestively as he bends over to reach into a cabinet. Heather calls a male player a ‘bada–” for wearing lip gloss, and Bishop makes a reference to watching pornography in the seventh grade. Heather also mentions that Natalie dated one of the other players in the tenth grade, which Natalie dismisses by saying they only hooked up “like, four times”.

There are a few crude references, as the players taunt each other during the challenge, and the f-word and s-words are used around 10 times each. God’s name is also taken in vain about six times.

Teenagers watching this episode’s Panic challenge drink beer and smoke cigarettes while some of them wear mildly revealing outfits. Natalie mentions that Bishop goes to church, saying it’s where people go to socialize; Heather corrects her by saying, “You mean ‘judge each other’,” and Natalie responds with, “Exactly. Socialize.”

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Lauren Cook Bio Pic
Lauren Cook

Lauren Cook is serving as a 2021 summer intern for the Parenting and Youth department at Focus on the Family. She is studying film and screenwriting at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. You can get her talking for hours about anything from Star Wars to her family to how Inception was the best movie of the 2010s. But more than anything, she’s passionate about showing how every form of art in some way reflects the Gospel. Coffee is a close second.

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