The Purge premiere didn’t exactly put its best foot forward, but the potential is there and hopefully it’ll quickly go for broke.
When I reviewed The Purge, I noisily complained that a fascinating dystopian premise had been squandered on a run-of-the-mill home-invasion thriller, and since then series’ creator James DeMonaco seems to have done everything he could to please me, first with The Purge: Anarchy, then The Purge: Election Year, and most recently with The First Purge, even though by that point he had handed the directorial reins over to Gerard McMurray. The reason, I suspect, is that he was busy being the creator and executive producer of The Purge series, which premiered on USA Network last night with an episode titled “What Is America?”
It wasn’t great television, but I’m not worried about it. “What Is America?” took a similar shape to the first act of a Purge film, introducing for-now unrelated characters that will inevitably cross paths as the season progresses. The premiere being relatively slow and uneventful is half the point; when things inevitably go to hell, the wait will have been worth it.
And they will, of course, go to hell. Across four films, the franchise has become more and more overt with its politics, characterising America’s nebulous near-future ruling body as a far-right nationalist party that increasingly resembles present-day Republicans, with all the requisite flaunting of Americana and regurgitated boasts of a flourishing economy to go with it. The stories have come to be about the marginalised underclasses being indiscriminately wiped out by white, wealthy policymakers, who present the annual Purge – a 12-hour period within which all crime is legalised – as a societal pressure valve, but really just use it to cull the non-white working class.
One of the principle characters in “What Is America?”, then, is Miguel (Gabriel Chavarria), a Marine on the lookout for Penelope (Jessica Garza), who has joined a cult whose members offer themselves up as sacrifices to Purge participants – a decision that, by the end of the premiere, she’s having second thoughts about. It’s a dark, smart concept and a product of the show’s place in the franchise’s difficult-to-track timeline; by this point the concept has been almost normalised, and the nutters are meeting it halfway with wacky, made-up mythologizing.
We also meet Jane (Amanda Warren), a get-shit-done careerist who’s trapped on the 38th floor of a corporate high-rise, having elected to try and close a deal rather than stay in the cushy hospital where her mother is shacked up and which has been declared a “Safe Zone”. Luckily everyone in the building has agreed not to participate in the Purge – a promise I’m sure will be kept by Jane’s underlings, Mark (Adam Stephenson) and Alison (Jessica Miesel), and that I’m sure won’t be connected in some way to her clearly-sleazy boss, Don (William Baldwin).
Finally, there’s Rick (Colin Woodell) and Jenna (Hannah Anderson), a happily-married couple who are spending Purge night at a party where they plan to schmooze the upper-crust into financing a charity. And boy, have they underestimated the upper-crust. In attendance is a mysterious woman (Lili Simmons) whom hazy flashbacks suggest they once had a threesome with, and all the attendees are wearing masks of notorious serial killers. Sounds like light-hearted fun to me!
This is why I’m not worried that “What Is America?” wasn’t all that great – it provides so much intriguing material to build on. It promises flagrant weirdness, heavy-handed racial and political undertones, and a refreshing moral ambiguity; all of which have come to be synonymous with the franchise, and seem, to me at least, to be most ideally explored in an episodic format. I have high hopes for The Purge. May the night be longer than ever.