Somehow, a television adaptation of The Purge feels both wholly unnecessary and totally inevitable. The movie franchise (four so far) has been silly and successful, each garnering mixed reviews and box office bucks. The basic premise — a future where, once a year, all crime is legal for a 12-hour period — can easily be translated into a small-screen series in a number of ways. It could use the extra time to explore the psyche of its participants, or to depict their lives during the other 364 days of the year. Or, it could just be an unbalanced cacophony of ridiculous plots, half-baked characters, and screwball violence … which is mostly what USA’s version is.
The Purge takes place during one Purge night, in an unspecified year (because, you see, it could be right around the corner), beginning with the hours leading up to commencement. One couple, Rick (Colin Woodell) and Jenna (Hannah Emily Anderson), attend a fancy Purge Night gala where the rich and elite — who think of the Purge as the “great liquidator of our time” — are safely closed off from the outside murderous shenanigans. Neither are into the idea of the Purge (well, Jenna is firmly against it while Rick, it seems, might be a bit more malleable) but they have to play the role in order to secure some investment money from slimy Albert (Reed Diamond) to help their cause. Also, they have a bunch of flashbacks involving a threesome but don’t ask; it’s not that interesting. Then there’s Jane (Amanda Warren) who spends her Purge Night at work to land a big deal for her boss (William Baldwin), even though he refuses to ever promote her. (You can probably guess how this ties into the Purge.) Meanwhile, Miguel (Gabriel Chavarria) is an ex-marine (as we learn many times through expository dialogue) who is on a mission to find and save his sister Penelope (Jessica Garza), who has joined a cult full of people willing to sacrifice themselves to the Purge.
If none of these characters sound particularly interesting, well, your instincts are correct. Each one is drawn so thinly that they barely exist. Even the most sympathetic character, Miguel (whose parents died during the first Purge, who must kill in order to survive and reach his sister), is hard to root for because he’s just so flat. When he ends up an unwilling participant in a violent game show called The Gauntlet, you know that he’s going to win but you secretly want him to lose if only to put the character out of his misery.
Fortunately for The Purge, it does come built in with an immensely watchable premise, even if it’s not always sure what to do with it. There’s something about the basic idea of the Purge that helps to keep the show afloat and somewhat compelling, even if you frequently forget the characters’ names and motivations. The series is occasionally enjoyable — and, in first two episodes, better directed than the writing deserves — as it absurdly races along, racking up the body count and including dialogue that never should’ve made it past the first draft. When Miguel asks if Penelope is out purgin’, a cult member gravely replies, “She’s being purged upon” — a line meant to evoke a chill but, in reality, only elicits a laugh. Another character mentions a “purge list,” AKA a bucket list for purge night. I’d recommend a drinking game where you take one sip whenever someone says “purge” but honestly, that’s pretty dangerous. I always joke that there’s a big difference between asking me “Is this show good?” and “Did you like it?” because, frequently, the answers are opposites. That’s a good way to sum up watching the first three episodes of The Purge: It isn’t a good television show, but I had fun watching it.
To its credit, there are a number of great throwaway scenes: an Uber-like driver mentions surge pricing on Purge night (which would make one hell of an episode, if the series knew how to have more fun); a broadcast announcing that a Purger freed all the animals at a zoo (a perfect crime!); a woman who gripes about a bad date by saying, with a remarkably casual tone, “Every time I see him in the elevator, I just want to purge him.” See, one of the keys to making The Purge interesting is by depicting the Purge with total mundanity, something the series only grasps in fits and starts.
The problem is that The Purge, even when it drops in these silly moments and (unintentionally) hilarious dialogue, remains deadset on having an overly-serious tone. The series half-heartedly grapples with the idea of wealth and classism (“the rich don’t kill each other”), mentions how other countries don’t need the Purge, touches upon the effects of lingering grief (albeit through a Purge-obsessed cult), and even has some thoughts on the glass ceiling — among others. But it fails to remember one thing: The Purge, both the franchise and the fictional event, is just so incredibly dumb. There are plenty of television shows and movies that do a fantastic job of depicting US politics, or how the rich screw over the poor, or how sometimes you have to make a deal with the devil in order to do something good. The Purge was never going to be thoughtful enough to become one of those series —it’s simply not supposed to be! — and would’ve done far better if it gleefully leaned into its nonsensical side and exhibited a little self-awareness. Often, I find myself watching a television show and wishing it had more intelligent goals; The Purge might be the first time I wanted the opposite.