Have we reached “Purge” saturation? Four movies and now a TV show later, it’s hard to argue otherwise. Moreover, it’s not hard to understand the appeal. Although the premise of 12 hours of lawful lawlessness requires a good measure of suspending disbelief, the potential character studies and societal analyses are abundant. It is unfortunate that USA’s TV adaptation of the vaunted franchise continues perhaps its biggest flaw: The franchise never actually explores the philosophical questions it raises.
“The Purge” follows the same basic premise of the movies that preceded it. It is set in a dystopian version of the U.S., one ruled by a (somewhat overtly) nefarious political party called the “New Founding Fathers of America.” As usual, the NFFA institutes an annual 12-hour period in which all crime, including murder, is legal. This particular adaptation focuses on a set of new characters. Miguel (Gabriel Chavarria, “Lowriders”), a Marine, returns home to find his sister, who has joined a twisted death cult that promises eternal salvation during the Purge. The cult is one of the show’s strongest points, a genuinely unsettling part of a show that tries really hard (but usually fails) at being unsettling. In a world already increasingly filled with truly bizarre cults (looking at you Q-anon), it somehow feels like the most realistic of the organizations set up in the show.
Another storyline follows Jane (Amanda Warren, “The Leftovers”), a steely, determined finance executive who hires an assassin to potentially climb her way up the corporate ladder. Rick (Colin Woodell, “Unsane”) and Jenna (Hannah Anderson, “Jigsaw), a married pair of anti-Purge socialites form the most mysterious storyline.
While all this seems at least somewhat compelling, it was quite impressive how badly the writers botched nearly every single aspect possible. “The Purge” is precisely the worst type of TV show, but not because it is a wholesale trainwreck. No, it does not give the viewer the morbid/comic satisfaction of watching a trainwreck. Instead, it is the very definition of self-satisfied mediocrity. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by being able to watch so much great TV in this so-called “Golden Age” of the medium, but I can guarantee that the writers of the last couple “Purge” movies were impressed that someone could phone something in even harder than them.
Even though the characters are put in some tricky situations, it is extremely difficult to garner any modicum of sympathy for them. Throughout the pilot, the dialogue remains stiff and reveals absolutely nothing about the characters’ inner lives, fears, motivations or really anything at all to make them feel human. Rick and Jenna have all the chemistry of two strangers meeting on a blind date despite being a married couple; Jane’s ostensible anti-hero status is never solidified because there’s nothing the audience actually learns about her. Miguel, who is arguably the most sympathetic character, is little more than the classic noble soldier who returns home to face a new battle. My five-year-old cousin has told me stories with better developed characters.
The show could have used all of these stories to explore the nuanced aspects of human psychology and seek to answer the philosophical questions of morality, law, justice, etc. that surround a concept such as the Purge. What is the connection between enforcement of justice and morality? Is a legal system that can be switched on and off a valid one in the first place? Beats me. Shows like “The Good Place” prove that it is not impossible to balance easily digestible entertainment and the exploration of deeper themes. Unfortunately, even this edition of “The Purge” eschews these questions in favor of gratuitous violence, cheesy sex scenes and horror that elicits more cringe than horror. Don’t waste your time with it.