“The Purge” franchise continues to defy expectations after its move to television. It still isn’t high art, and it probably can never fully transcend the high-camp trappings of its premise. (I suppose it’s hard to script a truly grounded horror property about people in Halloween costumes murdering one another with impunity on a designated “holiday.”) But, like the movies preceding it, the USA Network’s new dystopian horror show is still a bit smarter and more interesting you’d expect from its bizarre central plot conceit.
The 10-episode first season, which aired with seemingly little fanfare last fall, generally succeeds — I’d rate it an 8 out of 10, and I’ve spoken with a couple of other horror fan who were as happy with it as I was. The people who recommended it to me are also big fans of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” (which has radically improved this season), and that makes sense. Although “The Purge” has an entirely different feel than “The Walking Dead,” it also has a lot of common elements — both shows are milieu-type horror stories with a large, diverse group of characters negotiating a sprawling setting with innumerable deadly antagonists.
A surprising amount of thought went into this show. There’s a nice degree of world-building and detail, with various characters embracing, rejecting or remaining ambivalent about the titular “Purge.” The screenwriter here tries hard to round out the twisted America in which The Purge annually takes place, with a lot of creative and blackly cynical story elements. (I’m not clear if the writer here is James DeMonaco, who wrote and directed the first three of the four “Purge” movies.) We see, for example, a cult whose brainwashed members offer themselves up as willing murder victims, as well as anti-Purge revolutionaries who exploit the night to target the fascist oligarchical government which created the brutal holiday. There are a lot of surprises in terms of plot, character and setting that I will not spoil here.
The gore and violence were surprisingly high for network television. (Again, this show may be taking its cues from “The Walking Dead,” which always pushes the boundaries.)
Some of the acting is quite good — William Baldwin is absolutely superb, Lee Tergesen is always fun to watch, and the beautiful Hannah Emily Anderson is another talented standout. I swore I recognized Fiona Dourif’s distinctive looks and mannerisms. (She portrays the cunning cult leader who entices young people to sacrifice themselves, and I’ll be damned if she doesn’t totally look and sound the part.) But, upon Googling her, I realized I’d never seen her before — she just reminds me of her father, who also plays a lot of bad guys — the amazing Brad Dourif.
Some of my enthusiasm for “The Purge” waned just a little as the season wound down toward its conclusion. After Season 1’s unsettling ideas were left fully explored, the show did start to feel more like conventional television — right down to a standard good-guys-vs.-bad-guys shoot-em-up at its climax. (If the show had fully sustained its tension until the end, I would have rated it a 9 out of 10.) And the final minutes of Season 1 consist of a coda among three characters that is forced and preposterous … I’m surprised it made it past the editing stage. But this still wasn’t enough to spoil the fun.
I should also note here that not everyone enjoyed “The Purge” as I and my friends did. Critical and popular reaction to it is definitely mixed. (As of this writing, the show has only a 42% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, with just 63% of audiences liking it.)
Postscript — I could almost swear that the auditorium we see towards the end is the very same shooting location used for Thomas Smith’s school in “The Man in the High Castle.” You can tell by the establishing shots. It’s even lit the same way.