Probably the most important thing to say about “The Purge,” the film franchise that becomes television Tuesday on USA, is that the four pictures already released cost $35 million combined and have together grossed more than $447 million worldwide. If you’re wondering why it’s a series now, why are you still wondering that?
The films, from the original 2013 “The Purge” (cost $3 million, grossed $89 million) to this year’s prequel “The First Purge” (cost $13 million, grossed $133 million), are set in a near future — or here, an alternate — United States ruled by a totalitarian government called the New Founding Fathers of America. (Sorry, mothers.)
For reasons that don’t much reflect how people really are or that make any practical sense at all, the NFFA has decreed a holiday, or really half a holiday, called the Purge, a kind of no-holds-barred carnival in which the police and fire departments knock off for 12 hours once a year and everything is “legal.”
The idea of the civic order being maintained by organized violence is not new. There are “The Lottery,” “The Tenth Victim,” “The Hunger Games” and, as has been pointed out on the Wikipedia “Purge” page, “The Return of the Archons,” an episode of the original “Star Trek,” which also featured a 12-hour festival of Anything Goes.
It is true, too, that people used to join in stonings and go to hangings as forms of instructive entertainment, and that less vicious rites of mass disinhibition are celebrated the world over as winter turns to spring. And there is Halloween of course; the Purge is like that, minus the fun and the kids. (But there are still costumes.)
So there is a real-world foundation for some of this. It is not the case, however, that such practices lead, as in the films, to high employment and low crime the rest of the year.
Though there will perhaps be some surprises in store — I have seen only three of the season’s 10 episodes — it is not hard to tell the good guys from the bad. (And the bad from the provisionally bad, temptation being what it is.)
The most good of them out of the box is Miguel (Gabriel Chavarria), a Marine back from wherever Marines go in this American timeline, to find his sister, Penelope (Jessica Garza), who has sent him a cryptic letter. As we will shortly learn, she has joined a teenage suicide cult that makes its own sacrificial use of Purge night.
Then there are Rick (Colin Woodell) and Jenna (Hannah Emily Anderson), who will be spending the 12 hours hanging with rich fascists in an armored house; they hope to get funding for an affordable housing development from their wealthy host (Reed Diamond). “She fuses form and function to make structures that look like a Hadid or a Gehry without breaking the budget,” Rick says of Jenna’s designs. He seems slightly but no doubt significantly less disturbed by the whole business than she does.
Written, like its big-screen predecessors, by James DeMonaco, the series has a faint satirical strain. The first episode is titled “What Is America?” referencing a rhetorical question from some monological official broadcaster, which continues, “America is, we’ve been told, the land of the free, so tell me then, what is more American than the Purge?”
There is a corporate story line, featuring Amanda Warren as a businesswoman who feels kept down by her boss (William Baldwin, on a video screen) that gives rise to the best line in the first three hours. A purger, having done away with an office rival, asks blandly, “So do you notify HR about my promotion or is that on me?”
On the subject of the normalization of aberrant behavior, “The Purge” perhaps has something to say to modern Americans, and in a generous mood one might take all this state-encouraged violence as a metaphor for the way the poor have been systemically kept down by government inaction. But such occasional resonances feel more accidental and inconsistent, or at least beside the sanguinary point. The series rarely rises above the level of cliché.
The production is nothing to speak of. There is one fancy location in the first three hours, the mansion where the party takes place. It begins as a dull affair involving a countdown clock, big screen TVs, macarons, a string quartet and masks of famous pre-Purge murderers who “risked their freedom because they knew the incredible healing, the life-changing power of violence, of killing.” Most of the rest of it has a look of convenience.
As a voyeuristic amble through groves of murder and, it is implied, what used to be called a fate worse than death, “The Purge” is of course just the latest in a long line of motion pictures of both greater and lesser budget and quality, from “Salo” to “Saw,” that made hay from what they seem to abhor. But what happens out on the street after the not-fun begins resembles more than anything a point-and-shoot video game — with not that many players, given the budget. You might just go to Twitch and watch 10 hours of “Fortnite” being played — and people do.
Structurally, it’s a disaster movie. You are waiting for the clock to run out, for at least some of the people you like to survive the running time. Or perhaps you are just waiting for it to be over.
Where: USA; also Syfy
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd