USA’s ‘The Purge’ Tells a Better Dystopian Tale Than the Movies

Scarcely two months since the last movie, “The Purge” franchise now moves to television on USA. It’s actually not such a bad thing. This has always been one of those titles where the premise outshines the execution. America going wild for one night every year, where every law is put on hold, has a morbid allure, especially in the current political climate. But it’s a concept boxed in by the limits of a two hour movie. This 10-episode “special event” (no word yet on whether this is the first season of an actual series) expands the trashy, intriguing palette of “The Purge” films, finding space for multiple storylines. It is set a few years after this summer’s prequel “The First Purge,” and like the movies the series is not a complete success, but it has more thought put into it.

We’re back in a frightening United States of the near future, ruled by the regime of the New Founding Fathers of America. You know the drill, every year the NFFA holds a night where all laws are suspended and the people are allowed to “purge” their darkest rages. As the show starts the latest “purge night” is about to begin. As the countdown commences, former Marine Miguel (Gabriel Chavarria) is desperately looking for his sister Penelope (Jessica Garza), who has left a cryptic farewell note. Miguel and Penelope were part of one of the first families to lose people in the first ever purge. As Miguel begins his search, risking himself by traversing many dangers lurking in the streets, Penelope is actually riding around a bus with a strange cult. Led by “Good Leader” (Fiona Dourif), the cultists sacrifice themselves to purgers as an act of social redemption which they believe grants them passage to heaven (you know, usual cult stuff). Two other storylines focus on society’s upper sectors. A corporate executive named Jane (Amanda Warren) is working the night away to close a major deal, joined by her colleagues in a secure skyscraper where everyone has signed “no purging” waivers. Jane harbors a secret hatred for her boss, Don Ryker (William Baldwin), who has blocked her path to making partner over her refusal to sleep with him. He’s out of town but Jane has a plan for revenge. Meanwhile at a lavish estate the rich have gathered to avoid the coming chaos. A married couple, Rick (Colin Woodell) and Jenna (Hannah Emily Anderson), hope to convince an NFFA hotshot to invest in their business. But also at the party is Lila (Lili Simmons), the hotshot’s daughter who also happened to have experienced a threesome with Rick and Jenna, thus making the situation emotionally complicated. As the purge begins a masked vigilante named Joe (Lee Tergesen), prowls the streets looking for fiends to take down.

“The Purge” as a TV series has the same combination of trash and unnerving dystopia that have made the movies hits. James DeMonaco, the mind behind the purging, is at the helm here as well. Now with the wideness of the TV format, DeMonaco has more room to develop better story threads and characters. Unlike July’s “The First Purge,” which turned into a stale action movie, there plotlines here are a bit more interesting and try harder at social satire. In the tradition of classic B-movies or even (far more superior) filmmakers like George Romero, “The Purge” series is very much on the nose when it comes to taking advantage of current social issues. At the party Rick and Jenna attend the creepy rich host, Albert Stanton (Reed Diamond), has the guests wear masks of famous serial killers and mass murderers (Rick gets the Son of Sam), the idea being that these were the first “purgers” who defied conventional morality. For Stanton purging is simply a fine Darwinian practice to snuff out the weak (poor). The storyline involving Penelope has eerie moments as the cult members ride around a neon-lit bus, with the leader uttering lines meant to brainwash her followers into willingly getting killed. Jane also has some moments where the writing tries to tackle some of the real implications of the whole purge practice, particularly during a good scene where a colleague probes her about the overwhelming temptations the ritual offers. The scenes with Ryker ooze with corruption, and it’s not too hard to imagine a Harvey Weinstein victim seeing the purge as the perfect way to get some payback.

But these moments are strong points in an overall underperforming series. DeMonaco just never seems willing to go beyond the surface, or above the franchise’s habit for trashy style and lazy structure. As with film, TV restricts the real implications of the idea, and so all we get here are the same old shots of a character driving down the dark streets as masked revelers drag people from cars, shoot up buildings and occasionally strike a golf ball suspended over someone’s mouth. The usual “Purge” aesthetic is all around, including purgers dressed as nuns with neon-glow masks. This is a franchise where the look is always more imaginative than the writing. Miguel is reduced to being another tough guy running around with a gun, kicking ass and even winning a new car after surviving “the gauntlet,” a deadly obstacle course a car dealer hosts every Purge Night. Every story has potential, but DeMonaco keeps it all so B-movie level. Consider the story of Rick and Jenna. The best the showrunners can come up with for these two is that they’re haunted by a threesome? Only the first three episodes were made available for review, so it remains to be seen how this plot thread develops.

Like its movie predecessors, “The Purge” as a series functions as a weird balance of memorable images framed by subpar writing. There are interesting ideas here, and these episodes are much more fulfilling than the last film in the franchise. Something about this franchise strikes a chord with many viewers. It probably has something to do with the sense of conflict and political chaos in the world right now, especially when some politicians these days give speeches where they sounds like they would like to hold a purge. But precisely because DeMonaco has created a dystopian nightmare that speaks in a strange way to viewers, he should not let a good idea go to waste.

The Purge” premieres Sept. 4 and airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on USA.