In 2013, Blumhouse Productions released a low-budget movie called The Purge on the big screen. Set in a near-future version of America ruled by totalitarian political party New Founding Fathers of America – or NFFA, for short – the film revolves around a 12-hour period each year where all crime, including murder, is legal. Just five years later, the franchise written and created by James DeMonaco has spawned three film sequels and grossed over $447 million dollars worldwide.
Now, the franchise will terrorize the small screen in USA Network’s The Purge. The ten-episode event series follows several seemingly unrelated characters living in a small city. As the clock winds down on the tenth anniversary of the purge, each character is forced to reckon with their past as they discover how far they will go to survive the night.
The series opens with Miguel (Gabriel Chavarria), a U.S. Marine who returns home after receiving a strange letter from his sister, Penelope (Jessica Garza). It turns out Penelope has been recruited by Good Leader Tavis (Fiona Dourif) and joined a cult for people who pledge to be sacrificed on Purge Night. Reminiscent of Frank Grillo’s role in The Purge: Anarchy and its sequel, The Purge: Election Year, most of Miguel’s scenes (at least in the first three episodes screened for critics) feature him playing action hero and punching strangers on the journey to find his sister. Chavarria does his best with the material given, but the majority of his dialogue involves a) the need to find his sister or b) the fact that he’s a former U.S. Marine. The most interesting aspect of Miguel’s story so far arrives in the second episode when he must compete in an American Ninja Warrior-style competition known as The Gauntlet. In the dystopian America where The Purge takes place, The Gauntlet is a breath of fresh air in-between Miguel’s search. With only ten episodes to tell this story, I hope Miguel and Penelope are reunited sooner rather than later to avoid becoming too repetitive.
More interesting is the cult Penelope has joined thanks to a slyly sinister performance by Dourif. While it seems Tavis has the best intentions for her cult ‘children,’ Dourif’s performance lets you know there is more to her character than meets the eye. Fans of the iconic masks featured in the films will find plenty to love here as well. Each stop on the cult’s sacrificial tour of sorts is an opportunity for the series to introduce new, creepy masks I guarantee will end up at your local Spirit Halloween come next fall.
What would you do to make your dreams a reality? That’s the question plaguing Rick (Colin Woodell) and Jenna (Hannah Emily Anderson) as the series begins. The married couple decides to attend a party hosted by pro-Purge NFFA members in an attempt to fund their real estate development company. To make matters worse, the party hosts happen to be the wealthy parents of the pair’s former flame Lila (Lili Simmons) who is also in attendance. Simmons (who could easily pass for a young Julia Stiles) brings a spark to Lila that lights up every scene she is in, making this love triangle all the more interesting.
Another area where The Purge excels is its decision to lean further into the politics and classism of this annual night of terror. Only briefly touched on in the films (save for this year’s The First Purge) the television series expands upon these themes tenfold. Having Rick and Jenna attend an NFFA party provides new insight into the rich and ruthless people who support The Purge. Said party is also responsible for one of the series’ most chilling moments as partygoers put on masks adorned with the faces of real-life murders. The Purge may not be subtle, but the added dose of realism is certainly effective.
Jane (Amanda Warren) has spent years working her way up the ladder at her firm but begins to feel she’s hit a glass ceiling thanks to her boss, Don Ryker (Billy Baldwin). Seeing Purge Night as the perfect opportunity for retribution, Jane hires an assassin. In the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, there is an added weight to Jane’s story. A top-notch performance from Warren and the relatability of workplace frustrations make Jane’s story a highlight of The Purge.
Still shrouded in mystery is Joe (Lee Tergesen), a masked vigilante who drives around the city thwarting attempted Purge Night killings. Just who Joe is or how he ties into The Purge remains to be seen.
Taking place in the hours leading up to the annual Purge, the pilot episode titled ‘What is America?’ hits pause on the action and instead spends the hour focusing on the characters. One of my consistent frustrations with The Purge films was the lack of character development and this is where the television series shines in comparison: The multi-episode format of The Purge allows viewers to understand character motivations, while flashbacks shed light on their lives the other 364 days of the year.
As timely as it is terrifying, The Purge feels right at home on the small screen. If The Purge continues to focus on developing its characters and leans into the political nature of its premise, it could become a truly great television series.
The Purge is written and executive produced by the film franchise creator James DeMonaco and led by Jason Blum. Michael Bay, Brad Fuller and Andrew Form under the Platinum Dunes banner and Sébastien K. Lemercier also executive produce. Thomas Kelly serves as executive producer/showrunner of the series. Emmy and Golden Globe winner Anthony Hemingway directed and executive produced the series premiere.
The Purge premieres Tuesday, September 4, 2018 at 10 PM EST.