[WARNING – This review contains some minor spoilers.]
In 2013, a new horror film emerged onto cinema screens around the country and was widely panned by critics. Despite this, the idea behind this film captured the imaginations of audiences everywhere. Two sequels and a prequel were made based on the original film’s success. Now, The Purge has been brought to the small screen, in a ten episode “event” on the USA Network.
Given that this is a film series that is known for blunt, fast-pacing in both its violence and social commentary, the big question is how it can work as a slow-burn television mini-series? If the first episode is any indication, it seems The Purge series will be more of a psychological thriller, diving into the minds of those who chose to participate or hide, as well as the consequences of their decisions.
James DeMonaco, the man who created The Purge, wrote the script for this episode, which is set further in the future of the world of the films. While the events of The Purge: Election Day suggested that a politician would put an end to the event, this series shows that never happened. The Purge is bigger than ever, as is The NFFA – The New Founding Fathers of America, a powerful political organization that greatly influences the American government and also is the main champion of The Purge holiday. Due to their policies, we see that the rich are richer and the poor are poorer, with no sign of a middle class at all. It is here, in this world of riches and tension, where our story begins.
In this pilot, we are introduced to our first batch of primary story arcs. They are as follows:
- Miguel (Gabriel Chavarria): A former Marine who has returned home due to a disturbing letter he received from his younger sister, Penelope (Jessica Garza), who has joined a cult of minors, who feel their purpose is to sacrifice their lives to The Purge to find God’s Love.
- Rick and Jenna (Colin Woodell & Hannah Emily Anderson): a married couple who attend a party thrown by the NFFA on Purge Night in the hopes of secretly raising money for their anti-NFFA charity. As The Purge begins, however, they realize the cost may be more than they bargained for
- Jane (Amanda Warren): A businesswoman who is forced to work at her company on Purge Night with an overseas investment company to seal a deal and make lots of money. However, it appears she has a secret agenda, and it has put her on edge.
As the episode unfolds, we get a countdown to when the event begins. Things start at a slow pace in order to develop the characters before unleashing the carnage. For the most part, this works well. While there may be those who will miss the carnage of hard-R gore of the movies, allowing us to simmer more in the pre-Purge events allow viewers to see if they want to invest in anyone instead of just seeing the potential body count. The story arcs of Miguel and Penelope plus Rick and Jenna build the urgency and tension of their respective arcs and are well-paced by director Anthony Hemmingway. You feel Miguel’s fear in finding his sister before she is mindlessly sacrificed in blind brainwashed faith, while you feel uncomfortable along with both Rick and Jenna as they slowly realize they made a bad decision.
The same, right now, cannot be said when it comes to Jane. I am hoping her character receives further, deeper development over the course of the series. Right now, she is comes off as secretive and up-tight, which makes her story the least interesting. This is not a commentary on Amanda Warren, who is a great actress, but the writing of her character’s arc. Again, I am hoping the flaws fix themselves as the series progresses and prove me wrong about Jane’s character.
While I will admit that I missed the shock-value of the gore from the movies at first, the show still finds ways to surprise us despite the violence being toned-down for television. The moment where we witness the true nature of the cult’s fate, for instance, is truly shocking. Sometimes true horror lies in using the power of suggestion to spur the mind to imagine things far worse than what is visible and The Purge is potent in how well it accomplishes this.
Another example of how this tension is built and where it proves most effective lies in the unnerving and underlying fear of the NFFA party. As the Purge begins, the rich party goers are required to put on masks of famous serial killers – figures like Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Ed Gein and Lizzie Borden. These are people whom the NFFA view as having pioneered the values of The Purge and paved the way for others to purge legally. It’s the most unnerving moment of the episode and I hope to see more like it.
All in all, “What Is America? is a good start for The Purge: The Series. It’s not a perfect start, but more than good enough to get me to come back for the second episode. Join me next week, as I continue this journey to the 10th hour, hoping the momentum continues to build.