The Purge franchise—four films and now a TV series—has a fairly simple premise: Once a year, the United States goes through a 12-hour-long period where all crime is legal, which “naturally” leads to purging the country of criminals, general overpopulation, and those violent, nasty desires we all obviously must have. As for the rest of the story built in the films—such as their Big Bad, the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA)—USA Network’s new series holds the audience’s hand just enough to help any newbies understand the political—and financial—circumstances that created this new order and allow it to continue for as long as it does.
While there’s an obvious incentive for anyone who’s followed the franchise to continue doing so here, The Purge as a TV series should stand alone as such. And as someone who hasn’t watched The Purge movies, the episodes I’ve seen—including the pilot, “What Is America?” which picks up the action a little more than an hour and a half before the Purge begins—have given me enough reason to watch the rest of the season, just to see how it all shakes out. (Initially, it was rumored that this television adaptation of The Purge would take place on non-Purge days, but, flashbacks aside, USA’s version is fully about making it through those 12 hours of violence and uncertainty. Non-Purge heads WILL be disappointed to know the series doesn’t focus on the more mundane crimes one can commit during the Purge, either. But there’s always next Purge. Or the Purge after that. Or the Purge after that.)
In fact, the main advantage of turning The Purge into a TV series is the potential to expand on its mythology—and perhaps combat the argument that the concept is nihilistic and cynical in the process. While Purge franchise creator and series showrunner James DeMonaco has said that breaking story for this series made him realize there are far more stories to tell with the film franchise, hopefully he realizes that makes this series version of The Purge perfect for anthology purposes. Unfortunately, the nature of The Purge is such that everyone has to live by the world’s established rules, but they don’t necessarily have to interact: Everything is connected, just not literally. This means that the series feels uneven; while viewers can latch onto the characters or parts of the story they find most entertaining, there will be those they find lacking to sit through as well.
The story The Purge clearly considers its emotional center is that of siblings Miguel (Gabriel Chavarria) and Penelope (Jessica Garza), whose parents were murdered in the first Purge despite assurances of their safety from the NFFA. In USA’s series, Miguel spends Purge night looking for his sister, who’s gone from rehab to a Purge death cult (yes, a cult where members sacrifice themselves to Purgers). While the arc succeeds early on—it’s a story of love and family, which is the type of thing that keeps the franchise from being only about the senseless violence—the problem is that Miguel’s odyssey either has to end in tragedy or triumph… and the chances of that triumph happening any time before the end stretch of the first season’s 10 episodes are slim. Penelope, despite being introduced as naive and indoctrinated, soon becomes a far more interesting character: She is very much en route to absolute doom, and the drama surrounding her is more a matter of wondering how she’s going to save herself than finding out if Miguel is going to make it to her in time.
It’s the storyline featuring married couple Rick (Colin Woodell) and Jenna (Hannah Emily Anderson) that might be the secret weapon of the series, though, especially as it goes into the age-old question of whether it’s right to take money from evil people when you intend to use that money to do the right thing. At first, it looks like they may just be social climbers in a world where that climb has become even rockier, but as the series reveals their desire to help the poor and disenfranchised—by asking for money from the people who trying to eliminate the poor and disenfranchised—it becomes an even greater matter of challenging the status quo. It’s here that The Purge focuses on just how nefarious the NFFA is: If there were any remaining belief that the Purge exists for altruistic reasons—which is what the death cult suggests—or that elites were not supportive of “the cause,” the city’s annual Purge night party, hosted by the NFFA, eliminates it. At one point, the Stantons, who Rick and Jenna hope to get a very large investment from, even praise famous serial killers as visionaries who saw the importance of purging.
While Rick and Jenna aren’t one percenters, they are both certainly privileged—as is Lila (Lili Simmons), the Stantons’ daughter and part of a fascinating love triangle with Rick and Jenna. The actions of all three in the present—and their backstory, in the flashbacks—works to humanize them, in contrast to everyone else at the Stantons’ party. It also helps that Lila’s parents are such despicable people: This does more to set her and her former lovers apart than their own moral dilemmas do. For the most part, Albert Stanton (Reed Diamond) keeps his wickedness simmering beneath the surface, though Diamond is so gleefully terrifying before the character ever really does anything aggressively awful that it generates much of the early tension. Ellie Stanton (Andrea Frankle), on the other hand, is the typical rude member of the social elite, with the additional chilling characteristic of being a “true believer” when it comes to the NFFA, the Purge, and the world in which they live. While Miguel and Penelope’s Purge Night story is all about seeing the violence up close and personal, Rick and Jenna’s gets that same zoomed-in view in terms of the types of people who created the violence in the first place—and continue to thrive on it.
Which brings us to the major storyline that falls into the “lacking” category, which is Jane’s (Amanda Warren). It’s not as though The Purge isn’t aware of the pitfalls, either, as it attempts to provide some emotion and empathy for the character with a mother in the hospital and a professional glass ceiling. But the scenes in this particular storyline are truly the most generic of them all. Set at an equity firm office, Jane’s scenes are reminiscent of the stock footage of office life from Better Off Ted, without any sense of humor to go with it. While both Jane’s and Rick and Jenna’s storylines dedicate quite a bit of time to business deals, the former is the one that embarrassingly talks about how its corporate characters have to “close the deal” in a way that sounds most like kids playing a game. And, in contrast to Albert Stanton, there’s William Baldwin as Jane’s boss, Don Ryker—a character whose brief early moments on a conference room screen are more unbearable to watch than people murdering strangers in the street. It also doesn’t help that rooting for Jane to move up the ranks is to root for her to join the same people we’re already rooting for Rick and Jenna to get away from safely and cleanly. While no one aspect of the series is reinventing the wheel (or The Purge), Jane’s subplot shows that the medium’s space for additional stories and characters can be a negative, too.
For any viewers hoping for a return to the “fun” USA Network of yore, The Purge doesn’t quite fill that hole. The promotional materials for the show have some of that wit, which makes you wonder if they hoped for something else creatively, and Anthony Hemingway, who directed the pilot, certainly has a good time getting around basic cable regulations on the depiction of violence. But as far as the horror of it all, the series—like the films—seems to believe that inventive masks and slow movements are of the utmost importance, which might end up canceling out some of the dramatic tension. Ultimately, The Purge TV series feels a lot like The Handmaid’s Tale, but with the aggression turned outward rather than internalized (and hidden, for matters of self-preservation): The Purge is treated like a night of freedom, despite the way people either have to imprison themselves for protection or feel beholden to participating in truly grotesque acts of violence. While The Handmaid’s Tale shows just how much choice has been taken from women and others, The Purge shows just how bad things can get when it pretends that we have all the choice in the world even when we don’t.
The Purge premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on USA Network and Syfy.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.