Having evolved into a horror franchise that weaves social commentary into its mayhem, “The Purge” makes the perhaps-inevitable leap to TV, following different parties as the seek to survive the annual night where all crime becomes legal for 12 continuous hours. The USA series brings an anthological element to the concept — think “Tales From the Purge” — that has its moments, without quite making this “Purge” binge-worthy.
Written and produced by creator James DeMonaco, the opening episodes are plagued by a hit-miss quality, suggesting that not all Purge-related stories are created equal. The show also has a certain “Black Mirror” feel — or at least aspires to that — as the various players prepare for what’s to come, connected by a tension-building onscreen countdown with graphics like “97 minutes to Purge.”
The series takes place a decade into the Purge — a political infection confined to the United States — and there’s obviously a dystopian quality to a society so indifferent to its population as to sanction murder once a year. In this variation on the theme, it’s a situation that some people are determined to stop, others to exploit and most would just like to survive.
In that first basket, a wealthy couple (Colin Woodell, Hannah Anderson) intends to wait out the Purge behind the gilded gates of a black-tie party, where they hope to raise funds to help advance their philanthropic objectives. Not surprisingly, the glitzy event possesses an “Eyes Wide Shut” vibe, reminding us that the filthy rich are just like us, only more ruthless and horrible.
Elsewhere, a resourceful Marine (Gabriel Chavarria) seeks to locate his teenage sister amid the chaos, while a financial executive (Amanda Warren) spend the night orchestrating a big deal along with her coworkers, while engaged in a separate scheme that has her understandably on edge.
And so it goes. Oscillating from plot to plot, the show’s structure does a reasonably good job of conjuring tension, without establishing enough interest in the characters to be consistently engaging, beyond the natural empathy that someone would feel for ordinary folks thrust into such perilous, unnerving situations.
Then again, the concept behind “The Purge” as the movies have developed has been to have your cake and eat it too — to exploit the horror-tinged aspects of the story while pivoting to address social issues and societal violence in a way intended to feel deeper and more relevant.
Because the franchise has become a major success, it’s hard to second-guess the formula, and USA is treating the show like a big deal, simulcasting the premiere on its sister network Syfy.
Clearly, there’s a market for thoughtful, provocative science fiction, and with the more expansive canvas that TV allows, DeMonaco seeks to tap into that vein, fashioning a template that basically works. Where the series falls short, ultimately, is in the execution — or more accurately in “Purge” world, executions.
“The Purge” premieres Sept. 4 at 10 p.m. on USA and Syfy.