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Should You Watch … the ‘Purge’ TV Show?

Twelve hours of government-sanctioned murder have come to the USA Network

Still from ‘The Purge’ miniseries USA Network/Ringer illustration

The Purge franchise is so prolific that now the word “purge” hardly means anything other than “legalized night of murder.” From its simpler beginnings as an Ethan Hawke–starring home-invasion film inspired by Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” James DeMonaco’s creation has erupted as an unsubtle political allegory and its own kind of catharsis for the people that are watching it. As a viewer, you’re probably disgusted that a fictional right-wing party—the New Founding Fathers of America—have enacted a law making all crime legal for 12 continuous hours a year, as the policy primarily victimizes a plethora of low-income citizens. At the same time, the movies luxuriate themselves in that annual violence—and that has remained its biggest, most entertaining selling point.

Credit where it’s due, the Purge franchise quickly capitalized on its chilling political prescience by more overtly embracing its Woke Horror trappings—and in that sense its first TV series, The Purge, which premiered Tuesday on USA Network, is par for the course. The show focuses on a diverse set of protagonists from different socioeconomic backgrounds; it gives them different motivations for Purge night; it’s not exactly nuanced (the pilot is sincerely titled “What Is America?”); and to be sure, it’s a hyperviolent affair.

If you’re a longstanding Purge fanatic, well, this is good news for you. The 10-episode miniseries appeals to its base—albeit while subduing the violence and nudity just enough for cable television. For everyone else, though, it’s understandable if a Purge fatigue is setting in. All the Purge properties were already beginning to coalesce into one amorphous, indistinguishable, excessive piece of satire when The First Purge was released this summer; the USA show only hastens that feeling.

Of the new set of protagonists—which includes a Marine hoping to rescue his sister from a creepy cult that sacrifices its members on Purge night, and an anti-Purge couple at a fancy NFFA gala that’s hoping to secure funding for a real estate project—the most fascinating is a woman at a successful conglomerate who hires a contract killer to take out her boss. It’s the kind of motive that opens a Pandora’s box for the franchise and one that has remained largely unexplored: How, exactly, do these Purge rules work? If contract killers can wipe out bosses, how often does this happen? How many companies a year have to hit a hard reset and watch their stocks tank because their CEO was Purged? Do all crimes committed within that 12 hours go unprosecuted, even the ones whose consequences are felt long after the period is over?

More pointedly, while murder seems to be the NFFA’s selling point to American citizens, it isn’t the only thing that’s temporarily legal. Why wouldn’t you use those 12 hours to cheat on your taxes, pull off a bank heist, or steal someone’s credit card and rack up tens of thousands of dollars in purchases? (Perhaps the scariest thing about The Purge is how quickly one’s own mind begins to race about Purge-related possibilities.)

Unfortunately, the TV series reverts to the same violent ends as the film franchise, wasting a tantalizing premise and the opportunity for expansion that longform storytelling provides. What’s left is a show that feels like just another one of the movies. What’s left is a fictional universe that’s just begging for some distinctive world-building, when the closest we get to that is the staging of a Mad Max–esque gantlet across a city block. At least the Purge-crazed citizens know how to keep things entertaining for themselves.

Should You Watch It? Only if you can’t get enough of The Purge. Then, by all means: Think of all the good the Purge does.

Should You Check in on It Later in the Season? Presumably, by then the show will be nearing the end of the annual Purge, so the climax should at least be entertaining. (It’s also a miniseries, so you probably don’t have to worry about cliff-hangers.)

Should USA Network Change Its Slogan? Yes, “We the Bold” sounds like it belongs in an off-brand commercial for the military.

Are There Better TV Thrillers to Watch Instead? Thankfully, there’s no shortage of options. Leaning more toward excessive and campy violence, you can’t do much better than Starz’s Ash vs Evil Dead or IFC’s Stan Against Evil.