Over the course of four movies, the alternate reality of the Purge has slowly taken shape: a dystopian America in which, for one night of the year, all crime is legal. It’s an appropriately blunt political allegory for our own time—which often reads like satire itself— making the Purge arguably the most relevant ongoing horror film franchise in a good while. The films succeed in part because they are short and to the point—getting in, peppering some social commentary amid the bloodshed, and getting out again before they start to feel tired, or the violence exhausting. A TV adaptation of the same universe faces a far different challenge: Sustaining an ongoing tale of everyday people caught up in this gruesome tradition without succumbing to repetition or overly simplistic characterization.
The solution, it seems, is to have your lowbrow genre cake and eat it, too. The Purge, a new 10-part television series from USA and the films’ writer/creator James DeMonaco, tries its hand at exploring a broad swath of timely social issues, from deindustrialization to income inequality to an extremist political party seizing control of the levers of power. Mostly, though, it wants you to have fun. Perhaps in its later going, the show will execute some deep dives into the thorny moral and sociopolitical questions it raises, but for at least for the first few episodes, such concerns are quickly set aside in favor of action, intrigue, and splashy and engaging theatrics centered around the very concept of the Purge. So while this is still a franchise inextricably concerned with the fate of the working poor in this country, it’s clear that having some kick-ass fun is an equally important part of the equation.
The world in which the Purge exists has been steadily expanding throughout the films, from a single family to the streets of an urban free-fire zone to the politicians in the top echelons of power. So perhaps it’s only sensible for the series to focus its attention on a cross-section of humanity in a single, unnamed U.S. city. Via the use of flashbacks—a tactic for advancing character development in TV that is now becoming standard, thanks to shows like Lost and The Handmaid’s Tale—the series steadily fills in the details of the purged and the purging, isolated souls and stories that will undoubtedly come together before the night is over. There’s Jane (The Leftovers’ Amanda Warren), a frustrated corporate executive overseeing a force of underlings as they try to close a major business deal during the Purge, camped out on a tightly guarded floor of their white-collar office building (the “safest place to be,” she assures an assistant). After her comes Miguel (Gabriel Chavarria), a marine just returned from duty, now hunting the streets for his younger sister Penelope (Jessica Garza), a former addict who unwisely joined a death cult of true believers willing to sacrifice their lives for others’ bloodlust on Purge night. And then there’s Rick and Jenna (Colin Woodell and Hannah Anderson), a married couple whose plan to build sustainable housing for the poor requires spending the Purge at a posh all-night party thrown by a wealthy one-percenter in order to secure funding.
Part of the wicked fun of the show, as in the films before it, is in seeing the unexpected ways that American culture has responded to this deadly ritual. Showrunner Thomas Kelly has wisely leaned into narratives that play up the strategies of the various levels of society, from the on-the-streets rage of the angry working poor, venting their frustrations on fellow average citizens, to the gated-community protectionism of the rich, who literally watch the violence unfold from the comfort of their fortress-like homes. As always, the customs of those who treat the nihilistic tradition as a carnival of horrors are the most eye-catching (and eye-gouging), from a roving gang of killers clad in pink bunny suits to a band of nuns in luminescent habits, all intent on purging to their hearts’ content.
But it’s the little things that really give color to this alternate, American dystopia (a dystopia, it should be noted, that has a worrying tendency to look and sound a lot like our contemporary one). Witness one of Jane’s underlings expressing dislike of the Purge, only to ask her boss who would be on Jane’s “secret Purge list.” (“We all have one,” she playfully coaxes.) Or the mysterious woman who greets Jane at the door to her office building minutes before the clock starts, only to refuse a wad of cash with seasoned professionalism: “No transactions until the Purge begins.” Even more plausible are the many weapon-wielding people wholly ignoring Miguel as he roams the streets, their murderous aims only directed toward personal vendettas against their neighbors, not some all-encompassing desire for violence. (It’s also worth noting that this series, like its big-screen brethren, is nearly devoid of gratuitous violence, with most deaths taking place offscreen.)
While the show holds several long-term narrative secrets close to the vest, such as the mysterious woman at the Stantons’ party (Lili Simmons) who has some sort of dark past involvement with Jenna and Rick, it is largely (and refreshingly) free of the mystery-box storytelling method currently in vogue with long-form TV drama. Characters’ motives are devoid of sinister unknown intent; even Jane, with her suspiciously frequent phone checks, has clear reasons for her actions that are revealed by the second episode. For all the timeliness of the high-concept premise and its attendant political commentary (“We made this country great!” crows a member of the New Founding Fathers, the unspoken “…again” inaudibly echoing in the moment of silence that follows), The Purge has an admirable commitment to old-fashioned storytelling, establishing some relatable characters and then simply setting them loose in an exciting, larger-than-life scenario.
The premiere episode is a sharply written introduction to the series, a ticking-clock countdown to the start of the Purge that establishes narrative stakes while also partaking of the easy dramatic tension provided by the framework. If the characters are thinly drawn and not given much shading beyond obvious motivations, the heightened circumstances offer a somewhat understandable explanation. (Solid performances—especially Warren’s brittle, conflicted Jane—help a lot in that department.) With an enjoyably garish aesthetic for the street-level participants of the Purge counterbalanced by the upright elegance of the Stanton party and the corporate sterility of Jane’s office, pilot director Anthony Hemingway expertly sets up the various worlds contained within the overarching universe, an array of different spheres of life that nevertheless all revolve around this one life-or-death night. The paeans to freedom that litter the background, both visually and aurally, make for a pointed reveal of the hollowness of political talking points that only serve to legitimize a social Darwinism that rewards the rich and guts the poor... quite literally.
It’s still a bit odd that these near-future U.S. citizens are permitted to commit “any and all” crime, but still primarily gravitate towards murder (where are the shoplifters and insider-trading profiteers?), but The Purge delivers an appealingly outsized small-screen take on this material. “What’s more American than the Purge?” a broadcaster asks at one point. “Nothing.” Such lack of subtlety may not make for the most artful of darkly comic satires, but it feels about right for our current era.