Friday, August 31, 2018

TV REVIEW: USA's 'The Purge'

USA will launch its new original drama series The Purge on Tuesday, September 4 at 10/9c. The drama stars Gabriel Chavarria, Lili Simmons, Jessica Garza, Amanda Warren, Colin Woodell, Hannah Emily Anderson and Lee Tergesen.

Read on for my thoughts on the new horror drama after screening its first three episodes.

The Purge has been a highly profitable film franchise over the last decade. Four films have been produced for a collective total of $35 million but have grossed over $447 million worldwide. It's such a hit property that it's not surprising that the producers decided to expand the franchise with a television spinoff. Blumhouse Productions already has a television branch that is exploring more properties that can be produced. They are a bunch of smart executives that know how to deliver a product for a certain budget and in a certain time frame so that it can maximize profits. Of course, the producers also have to know how to navigate the film and television properties. They are very different formats for storytelling. The four feature films in this franchise have already established a sense of mythology and history for the audience. As such, the show could potentially be alienating to audiences who haven't seen the films - with the most recent one, Election Year, just debuting in July. There is some sense of that with the show providing some expositional dialogue for those viewers who haven't seen a minute of the films. But it also operates under the assumption that everyone knows what The Purge is because it's been in the cultural zeitgeist for a number of years now. It's a holiday where for twelve hours all crime is legal. As such, it's a night of pandemonium in the hopes that it will lower the crime rate throughout the rest of the year. It's a time for people to actually release the worst impulses that they keep confined in civilized society. These are the basics of the story that need to be understood before the viewer starts the first episode. They will come in very handy as the show starts telling its own very specific stories.

And yet, the TV show also feels burdened by not being able to do anything different from the formula established in the movies. The producers want the two formats to exist within one another. None of the characters from the films are spun off onto the TV show. The ensemble here is full of newcomers to the franchise. But there is also the concern that nothing monumental can happen in the series because the producers want all of the big developments to occur in the films. As such, it feels like the show is very limited in what it can do. There is the hope that it can explore some different aspect of the Purge. The third film talked about the politics of the event and whether government officials should be exempt from it. The fourth film details how the holiday began in the first place. None of the stories from the films are all that important throughout these opening episodes though. The show is set during the ninth ever Purge. As such, it's enough for patterns to emerge so that people know what to expect during the night as well as ways to exploit it for maximum impact. That means that there are some routines to the behavior of the characters. But again, it all seems like big picture ideas that the show just doesn't know what to do with at all. Moreover, it feels like settings and characters that have already been amply covered in the films. The action is still following a bunch of characters in a city environment as people roam the streets wearing masks and killing whomever they come across. That's the basics and the show doesn't really expand on them at all.

The show is juggling a number of different stories as well. There are four distinct settings that are playing out throughout these opening three episodes. It's very much unclear if they all will intersect at some point. It seems unlikely just because of how confined two of them are. One aspect of the narrative centers on the elite of this world throwing a party in order to celebrate this momentous holiday. That's the corner of the story where the New Founding Fathers political party exists. That's the radical group of people who led the overthrow of the government and now hold the power. They created The Purge. It's not so secret that they hold this event every year in order to cull the population. It's their way of dealing with the poor instead of creating programs that will allow them to succeed in the world. This corner of the story is told from the outsider's perspective. Rick (Colin Woodell) and Jenna (Hannah Emily Anderson) are a couple with big plans for real estate development that will create housing for the less fortunate while still being very cost efficient. They just have to ask the businessman throwing this party for a sizable investment. At first, this setting represents a way to be cut off from The Purge completely. The security measures are in place to ensure that no one can get in. And yet, that also means that people can't get out either. That's a scary thought that is bound to lead to some horrifying moments. However, this story is mostly interested in the lamest and least sexy threesome that has ever been depicted onscreen. The show feels the need to be withholding to the audience in terms of what's exactly going on too. And so, none of it really works.

In fact, that defines the other aspects of the main narrative as well. Some thought was put into the design of the stories. And yet, there's no real sense of how to shake up the formula in order to tell captivating tales in the episodic format. It's all essentially playing as a 10-hour movie. But that mostly amounts to things being really stretched out. That's already so agonizing and annoying. It doesn't seem like the show is rushing to get to the point of it all anytime soon. Again, there are solid ideas here. For instance, businesses are willing to provide safe places during The Purge to employees who are going to work and also sign waivers saying that they will not purge in that space. And elsewhere, there are Purge cults that have popped up that take appreciation for this holiday to an entirely different level of twisted. But this has to be one of the most boring and nonsensical cults ever created. The leader is preaching the idea that those listening have to sacrifice themselves during the Purge. But she's not going to sacrifice herself during the events of the night. She plays it as it being her burden to bear. She helps people throughout the year get ready to be reunited and fulfilled with their loved ones in the afterlife. It mostly just reads as a giant scam that gets so repetitive. Whenever the show cuts away to that story, it just feels like it is marking time until the one character the audience is suppose to care about is thrown into harm's way. But that moment doesn't happen until the third episode which is much too long without giving the audience a true way to understand what she is feeling in the moment.

That's probably the biggest problem with The Purge TV show. Everything is just so damn boring and monotonous. It's all being told in the same grim and slightly menacing tone. But there's nothing truly inventive with the way the show is trying to shock the audience. It all feels like cheap thrills that carry no weight to them because the show is just slowly teasing information to the viewer. It's taking too long to get going. Plus, the show is relying on a bunch of relative newcomers in order to carry these stories. Yes, there are some in the regular cast whom I have noticed elsewhere like Lili Simmons, Amanda Warren and Colin Woodell. But they are all taking things much too seriously in the hopes that the audience will just instinctively care about what happens to them. It can't be that simple though. The show has to put in the work to get us to invest in these stories. The creative team just doesn't seem to care. It just wants to put the characters into somewhat perilous situations in order to have some minor moments of uncertainty. But it's mostly just too much wandering around and talking about things. Even the attempts to bring some acting gravitas to the series feel lackluster. William Baldwin is stuck acting over video chat for most of his scenes. Reed Diamond has no idea how hammy or serious he should be with his role. And Lee Tergesen is literally stuck behind a mask for no reason whatsoever. All of this builds to a television show that is just one big missed opportunity because no one really knows how to best utilize the format in order to tell captivating stories. The films haven't gotten strong critical reaction either. So, this may just be destined to be a property that is popular if not all that smart and bold with its stories.