The Purge making the transition from the big to small screen was almost inevitable. James DeMonaco’s pulp, social horror franchise has grown significantly from the original 2012 home invasion picture, which simply enjoyed carving up white privileged elites, into a full-blown vicious commentary on America’s slump into proto-fascism. The First Purge, which hit cinemas earlier this year, connected the near-future origins of the Purge—an American holiday founded on the principle release of legal violence—directly to our current political climate. You sense this TV translation will follow suit.
‘What Is America?’ is an appropriate title for the series premiere of The Purge on TV as it’s a question being asked everywhere right now – from journalists to filmmakers to shock jocks and even Sacha Baron Cohen (he just wants to know *who* America is, instead of *what*). The Purge’s evolution into a potent reflection of the dark side of America’s democratic freedoms almost seems too easy, *too* on the nose a sideswipe at the ugly side of a trend right now in Western countries back to isolationist principles and nationalism, but DeMonaco’s films have struck a chord for what they are, and consequently his TV adaptation—set in the same universe as the movies—lays track for stylistically much of the same.
There are numerous recurring tropes in the Purge films which DeMonaco replicates here. We always have a strong, fairly righteous hero capable of looking after himself – sometimes its a cop, or an anti-hero gangster, and in this case it’s Miguel (Gabriel Chavarria), an ex-Marine looking for his wayward sister Penny (Jessica Garza) who it turns out has been recruited into a Heaven’s Gate-style Purge-based death cult, preparing to offer themselves up as willing ‘vessels’ to be slaughtered so they can enter an idealised afterlife. Penny is another trope – the family member who needs protecting/saving, but here at least she is embroiled inside an intriguing idea DeMonaco has never explored in the films: Purge radicalisation.
The Purge franchise loves a good dichotomy between rich and poor (sorry, the ‘less fortunate’, as entitled anti-Purge wealthy campaigner Jenna (Hannah Anderson) states), and we get that with Jenna and her husband Rick (Colin Woodell), both of whom find themselves mingling with the privileged elites who placed the New Founding Fathers, the ruling party who instituted the Purge, into power. Ignoring the weird nature of their plot—a rickety marriage having to face the aftermath of an awkward threesome with the daughter of the people they’re schmoozing—Rick & Jenna nonetheless are our way into DeMonaco making no bones anymore about the outward fascism of the NFFA – a party many would say are not too far removed from a certain current ruling elite.
One of the more chilling ideas in ‘What is America?’ sees the guests at this swanky party forced to don Eyes Wide Shut-esque masks of renowned American serial killers, who the hosts proudly declare as pre-Purge totems to inspire, men like the Son of Sam now being cast as pioneering heroes of a system which celebrates and encourages the worst violence imaginable as a salve for the American soul. It’s about as bonkers as anything DeMonaco has ever suggested in the films but you almost have to admire the bravado of it. You wish the rest of the episode had been so openly gonzo, yet it’s sadly somewhat laboured with the task of introducing a collection of players from different walks of life whose journeys we will follow and could well at points intersect.
In that sense, The Purge feels already like a hybrid of The Walking Dead’s psychotic, bleak nihilism and the real-time thrills and political misdemeanours of 24, yet it fails to land the punch either of the pilots for those shows managed. The concept of The Purge has always been marvellous and it frequently overshadows the characters and narratives within the films, and the same is true here of the TV show. Will you care about people like cold businesswoman Jane (Amanda Warren) who doesn’t seem to know how well her bread is buttered? Probably not. It may not matter, if The Purge can be as pulpy, bloodthirsty and entertaining as the better of its films.
On the basis of this scene-setting pilot, the jury is out. It could improve or it could sink into the doldrums with this amount of time and space to explore the idea. Personally, I have faith in DeMonaco and remain optimistic The Purge may deliver. Start the countdown.
The Purge airs on Amazon Prime every Wednesday.