AMERICAN HORROR STORY
‘The Purge’ Comes to TV—Darker, Freakier, and Better Than the Movies
USA’s new ‘Purge’ TV show is faster-paced, more diverse and more pointed in its critique of American bloodlust than its cinematic counterparts.
I have many questions about the Purge, the annual night of government-sanctioned murder and mayhem—in which all laws are suspended, and anything and everything goes—depicted in The Purge and its three sequels. If I steal someone’s credit card and make tons of purchases on Amazon, will those shipments still arrive two days later? Can I download as many movies, TV shows and albums as possible on The Pirate Bay during the course of the evening, and would that effectively bankrupt the entertainment industry? Once the sun came up, would I be able to register at the DMV any and all cars I’d stolen? And if I snagged a newborn baby on my way out of a hospital maternity ward, could I legally change the tyke’s last name to Schager?
These and many, many more of my queries are left unanswered by James DeMonaco’s cinematic series, which only addresses a few scenarios that might arise during a 12-hour period of lawful lawlessness; instead, its primary focus is the means by which a ruling class known as the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) use this “bloody holiday” to eradicate minorities and the poor as a form of white-nationalist population control. Such incendiary button-pushing has made the franchise explosively exploitative. However, it’s also caused it to get bogged down in moralizing at the expense of suspense or scares—or, more crucially, inventiveness, which seems an outright crime considering the myriad possibilities afforded by its premise.
Enter The Purge television show, debuting on USA Network (and, for its premiere and finale, on Syfy as well) this Tuesday, September 4. Spearheaded by DeMonaco, the 10-episode series does not, I must confess with more than a bit of dismay, definitively explain every nuance of the Purge’s operation—at least, not in the three advance installments provided to press. Nevertheless, through a collection of stories set over the course of a single night, it does faithfully expand its purview to dramatize a wide variety of situations that, in total, expand our understanding of this most malevolent of occasions. You may not learn whether or not you can firebomb your school and, consequently, get an early summer vacation, but you will get a broader view of how this depraved system functions, and how diverse individuals navigate it for their own benefit.
At the center of The Purge is Miguel (Gabriel Chavarria), a Marine recently returned from a tour of duty and in search of his sister Penelope (Jessica Garza), whose last letter suggested that she was preparing to do something drastic. As kids during Staten Island’s maiden Purge (depicted in this July’s The First Purge), both Miguel and Penelope witnessed their parents’ slaughter. Now, as twentysomethings, Penelope has chosen to cope with that tragedy by joining a cult run by Good Leader (Fiona Dourif, as unnervingly creepy as her dad Brad) whose blue-robed members are committed to sacrificing themselves to creepy masked Purgers—the idea being that they’re helping humanity heal itself through violence, as well as getting the chance to escape their miserable lives and reunite with their lost loved ones in the great beyond. Aboard a school bus filled with like-minded acolytes, Penelope heads off to meet her sure-to-be-grisly fate.
Miguel encounters endless obstacles along his rescue mission, including being forced to participate in a “gauntlet”—think The Running Man, except with a far lower budget—run by a local car dealer that’s broadcast online for the masses’ entertainment. Those viewers include guests at the black-tie shindig of NFFA bigwigs Mr. and Mrs. Stanton (Reed Diamond and Andrea Frankle), which Rick (Colin Woodell) and his wife Jenna (Hannah Emily Anderson) attend so they can convince Mr. Stanton to invest in their business venture. Neither Rick nor Jenna is pro-Purge, which complicates their presence at this soiree. So too does the appearance of Lila Stanton (Lili Simmons), whom Rick and Jenna both previously slept with in a threesome that once again proves that threesomes are never, ever good for a marriage.
On the corporate side of things is Jane (Amanda Warren), an executive whose refusal to sleep with her CEO boss Don Ryker (William Baldwin) has stymied her path to partner-hood. Consequently, while working with colleagues on the night of the Purge—on a skyscraper floor where everyone is forced to sign a no-purging waiver in order to receive armed-guard protection—she hires an assassin to do her dirty work. In Jane’s tale, The Purge finds the best vehicle for both tension and creative world-building, as Jane contends with ambitious underlings eager for a promotion, deals with a predatory boss whose squinty-eyed expressions ooze sliminess, and tries to create an opportunity to watch her hired killer carry out her task in real-time on a smartphone app.
Toss in a masked vigilante (Lee Tergesen) hunting for criminal prey while listening to Purge-themed motivational tapes, and The Purge provides a cross section of cultural deviance. DeMonaco’s panorama reveals the lengths to which Americans will go to manipulate the Purge to their own ends, fight against it in noble rebellion, or simply manage it—for example, at safe-haven bars, which are guarded by bouncers wielding both copious firearms and metal detectors. The micro greatly enhances the macro in DeMonaco’s series. Though some of its dialogue can be rough-around-the-edges blunt, and its functional performances fall short of exceptional, the show has a propulsive energy that serves it well. Along with a splintered focus that allows for little time-filler, the action’s speed means that preachiness is kept to a minimum—critiques of the NFFA and its institutionalized genocide plans are relegated to sharp, cutting details and asides, where they more powerfully sting.
Through its distinct storylines, The Purge comes down hard on mankind’s inherent nature, as homicidal danger is ever-present even in the most secure and civilized of locations. In the absence of rules, are people merely self-interested, bloodthirsty beasts? No matter the heroic light struggling to peek through this ugly darkness, DeMonaco’s show has few optimistic things to say on that subject. And if it remains silent on some of my larger questions—like, what’s to stop me from stealing every Powerball ticket in the state and claiming the winnings for myself, or going hacker-anarchist crazy à la Mr. Robot, or grabbing a spot of rural property and establishing my own Schagerland fiefdom?—it nonetheless seems, for now, headed in the right wicked direction.