'The Purge': TV Review

Ten hours is a lot of 'The Purge' to binge.
9/4/2018

Cynical, nihilistic and exploitative, 'The Purge' heads to the small screen (on USA) with its basic flaws and fitfully engaging world-building intact.

Vacuously cynical, glibly nihilistic and yet prone to moments of frustrating inspiration, The Purge has become one of cinema's most resilient and unexpected franchises. The movies get made quickly, they're all hugely profitable and nobody much seems to care that they are, at their heart, studio-produced exploitation films, a corporately endorsed Roger Corman for Dummies.

That sounds mean, but I acknowledge there's something primally effective about the few Purge films I watched before I checked off the "I get the point, time to move on" box. No matter how low and superficial the franchise's opinions on humanity may be, its brand of speculative fiction can also be viscerally satisfying.

The first Purge film gave the impression of being claustrophobic or contained, but creator James DeMonaco quickly adapted the series to become wildly expansive and a TV show was pretty much an inevitability. Even if you find the stories in this universe to be sneering, ultra-violent misanthropy, you'd be a fool to say those stories aren't limitless.

Premiering Tuesday on USA Network and sharing a name with the franchise's first entry, The Purge is designed to be completely accessible to neophytes. The series, created by DeMonaco, starts several years into the annual tradition according to which all crimes, including murder, are legal for 12 hours as a tension release valve for the nation. We begin with an all-caps countdown to Purge Night in an unspecified city, in which we meet our various characters whose lives will inevitably intersect.

There's Miguel (Gabriel Chavarria), a former Marine whose parents were killed on the first Purge Night, trying desperately to find his sister Penelope (Jessica Garza) before she falls in too deep with a Purge-worshipping cult. There's Jane (Amanda Warren), spending her Purge Night on the barricaded 38th floor of an office building attempting to finish a financial transaction for demanding boss David Ryker (William Baldwin, expertly settling into a niche as Hollywood's best Alec Baldwin impersonator). Young real estate developers Rick (Colin Woodell) and Jenna (Hannah Emily Anderson) are attending a wealthy Purge Night gala in hopes of securing investment from a sneering plutocrat (Reed Diamond, effortlessly out-acting everybody around him) with impeccable taste and scary appetites.

The Purge itself kicks off near the end of the first episode, which leaves time for more than ample mayhem over the 10-episode first season. The films have maxed out at an exhausting 109 minutes, so you can imagine what an arduous binge this TV Purge will be.

You know what I love about The Purge and its spawn? The rules. I understand that's vaguely ironic, but I love the boundaries and restrictions of a day without restrictions, the issues of liability and legality imposed and articulated so that this thing that makes absolutely no sense can be rationalized and postulated. Giving DeMonaco and his team of writers 10 hours offers a fair amount of time dedicated to rules and logic, to show a wider swath of how Americans celebrate or avoid Purge Night, to delve into individual rituals and the illegal cottage industries that would grow around this holiday. I'm there for that!

DeMonaco's conceptual interest in this world kept me watching over the three episodes sent to critics even as the execution made me fatigued. Characters talk in gouts of expositional, groan-worthy dialogue and, staying true to its B-movie (or lower) roots, the franchise has never had actors capable of overcoming the words put in their mouths. I was especially sorry for Warren, whose interview scene with Baldwin's Ryker reached a nadir of clunkiness, and Miguel, whose military service monologues never rise above generic. Everybody in the Purge franchise feels like a sociologically distinctive "type"; none of them feel like human characters. The show, like the movies before it, is an unfunny satire of human behavior driven by an absurdly basic understanding of the actual divisions in American culture. The most baffling thing about The Purge is that the 2013 movie anticipated much of the country's simmering rage in the build-up to 2016 election and beyond, without subsequently figuring a single intelligent thing to do with that brief window of prescience.

The violence — one of the places The Purge comes closest to realizing its satiric intent — is mirthlessly cartoonish, from the Warriors-esque costumes worn by many Purgers to the comical way that the minute the clock strikes Purge o'clock, people are just out in the street lighting each other on fire and hacking at each other with axes. The TV version still represents a leap forward for the franchise, because producer Anthony Hemingway, director of the first two episodes, is much more talented than this material deserves. He sets an eerie mood successfully, and there are several efficient set pieces peaking in the second episode when Miguel is forced to survive a perilous and unarmed run through a dangerous neighborhood block — dubbed "The Gauntlet" — in order to win a muscle car. Straight from the show's grindhouse roots, the scene doesn't, for a single second, pretend to be offering contemporary commentary. You can imagine The Gauntlet being a full 75-minute movie from 1973 starring some Carradine or other. Here it's rushed through in 10 fun minutes.

Otherwise, The Purge is just a grim, violent throwback, like Syfy's short-lived Blood Drive without the verve or propulsive energy. The part of me that wants to keep watching The Purge for more world-building details is likely to lose out to the part of me that, after nearly a third-of-a-season, doesn't care about the fate of a single one of the show's characters. A real suggestion: Maybe for a second season, get DeMonaco and his team to create the framework and some notable new rules before turning the story and characters entirely over to a completely new group of writers. Otherwise, for better and more often worse, The Purge will just be more of the same.

Cast: Hannah Anderson, William Baldwin, Gabriel Chavarria, Fiona Dourif, Jessica Garza, Lili Simmons, Lee Tergesen, Amanda Warren, Reed Diamond
Creator: James DeMonaco
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (USA Network)