Ah, The Purge series. Always filling horror fans with hope. Always letting them down in a painful blaze of mediocrity. There have been four films to date since Blumhouse first released the original back in 2013, with the most recent entry, The First Purge, releasing earlier this year. Most fans have been consistently disappointed, though admittedly, each film has been a little better than the last. But with The Purge TV series premiering on USA, it seems the franchise may have finally found a way to work…
…Created by James DeMonaco (The Purge franchise creator/director), episode one of The Purge, entitled What Is America?, is written by DeMonaco with Anthony Hemingway (The Wire) stepping into the director’s chair. This first episode introduces us to a slew of characters from all different walks of life as they prepare for the commencement of the annual Purge, an event in which all crime, including murder, is legal in America for twelve hours. There’s Miguel (Gabriel Chavarria), a military man searching for his sister, Penelope (Jessica Garza) as he tries to save her from a sacrificial cult. Then there’s Jane (Amanda Warren), a businesswoman forced to work with employees in a high rise as they try to close a business deal during Purge night. Lastly there’s Jenna (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Rick (Colin Woodell), a couple attempting to make it big with a new business deal which they plan on striking during a New Founding Father’s party, aka, the slimy party that created the Purge and uses it to prey on the poor and weak.
What works so much better this time around than in The Purge films is that, by placing these characters into ten, hour long episodes, the creators are given plenty of time to grow and develop these people so that, you know, we actually give a shit once all hell starts breaking loose. Too often in the franchise, the filmmakers have opted for flash over substance, barely spending any time with their characters before the bloodbath begins, with the exception of The First Purge, which easily has the best characters of the franchise. Character should always come first in storytelling, but with this concept, its especially important, because The Purge uses very real ideas of humanity and what it takes to unleash the anger bubbling inside all of us, so if we don’t understand our cast, then it becomes pretty easy to become detached from the horror on screen.
Not the case here. While none of the performances particularly blew me away, and no one stands out too much yet, it’s still refreshing to be able to spend some screen time with everyone and understand better why they’re doing what they’re doing, and what sort of potential they have for violence (and The Purge is deliciously violent). Each and every person has a secret in The Purge, some kind of need, desire, anger, etc., that makes them prone to what the night encapsulates, which is to unleash those desires. This makes for what could be a fascinating watch as we follow these people, and others yet to be introduced, and discover who has what it takes to survive, and who can’t help but resist their primal urges.
However, there is one unforgiveable flaw with the cast, and that is the fact that, like in the original The Purge, the TV series has chosen to side step any political commentary (at least in this first episode), instead focusing on either rich white people or those who are more well off. Where are the minorities being brought down and politicized by the government? Where are the people who the Purge affects the most, the people on the bottom of the social ladder? Coming hot off the heels of The First Purge, which was fantastic in the way it realistically portrayed the way the government would likely target minorities as essentially cannon fodder for their political gain, it seems a little irresponsible that the creators would choose to ignore even the slightest hint towards that this time around. Maybe some executive at USA got cold feet and decided against anything of the sort, but it’s not as if the show doesn’t contain other sorts of commentary, so in a franchise that has relied heavily on those sorts of themes regarding inequality, it seems rather senseless that DeMonaco and his team would bail on those ideas now. I don’t want to see how well off people that can choose to participate in the Purge or not deal with it. I want to see the people that HAVE to participate AND those on the other side. To me, that’s a far more interesting dynamic than having more than half the cast be wealthy business people, no?
The Purge also suffers from a bit of structural imbalance. It’s not that the cast is too large (we’re only following four different storylines), but with the way the stories are cut together, this first episode can at times come off disjointed. It becomes difficult to place a timeline on events, even with The Purge constantly reminding us how much more time there is until commencement, mostly because the show is often cutting away from important events and leaving us to ponder on them for what feels like forever until we return to the moment. It also doesn’t help that there is no reference point for the Purge here. How long has it been going on? Is this a prequel to the films? A continuation? The creators are never clear as to where The Purge TV series fits into the franchise, if at all, which only adds to a mild sense of confusion.
But as a horror fan, you’re probably wondering about the actual horror, and I’ll say this: The Purge is darkly comedic yet just about as grim as it gets, with enough horror to make up for a lack of bloodshed (this is the USA network, after all). And yes, I too cried out to the TV gods in an outrage that The Purge couldn’t have ended up on a less prude network like HBO or Showtime, but horror fans don’t always get nice things, and there are at least some deeply disturbing moments regardless that will make you want to hide in your own safe house, rocking back and forth until the sun comes up. Coupled with a sinister humor, such as a moment where Jane happens across a guy sharpening a machete minutes before the Purge who simply tells her, “don’t worry, not for you”, and The Purge makes for an entertaining outing.
If only I felt the entertainment value was there to last. Again, this is just one episode, but I get the sense that the creators are either going to have to pick up a bunch of new storylines, or they’re REALLY going to be dragging out these stories, because all of them already feel about a quarter of the way complete, and with nine more episodes to go, I worry about whether or not there is enough meat left on the bone to chew. Of course, I’d imagine USA is going to Jack Bauer this and play the show out 24 style, with each episode taking place (mostly) in real time, which could be the sort of fresh take that the franchise needs. But in order to stay fresh, the series will also need some new ideas. The Purge is off to a nice start, introducing concepts like a cult that offers themselves as victims of the purge, but the show will need to introduce more in order to keep viewers interested, otherwise things could become dryer than the blood on a purger’s favorite, unwashed purging sword.
As concepts go, bringing The Purge franchise to TV was a fantastic way to keep fans interested, and it has a chance to dig deep into the themes that have always been prevalent within the series. This first episode is pretty average, and I don’t see it wowing anyone who isn’t already a curious observer of The Purge films, but if you are a fan or have been wanting more from the franchise, then this may be the answer. If not, expect USA to purge this one while barely batting an eye.
Catch The Purge TV series every Tuesday on USA.
By Matt Konopka