The Purge is absurd — and all too real

The plot is ludicrous, but the theme is uncomfortably relatable

A scene from The Purge.
(Image credit: Patti Perret/USA Network)

The Purge has made its way into your home.

The 10-episode limited series, which aired its first episode on USA earlier this week, is a lot like the movies on which it's based. The show's first hour introduces us to a disparate cast of people from different backgrounds and walks of life with the upcoming Purge — a government-sanctioned annual event where, from 7 p.m. March 21 until 7 a.m. March 22, all crime is legal — mere hours away. By the end of the first episode, all of these characters are forced to confront the horrors of the Purge head on, abandoning whatever plan for safety they had. And then, for nine more episodes, we watch them try to survive it.

Of course, anyone who's seen a Purge film — any Purge film, really — knows that there's more to it than simple bloodlust and the lurid thrill of a tight, well-executed piece of exploitation art. From the very start, Purge creator James DeMonaco has injected his brutal thrillers with explicit social commentary. The Purge, the film that kicked off the franchise, was a mere home invasion thriller with a high-concept premise but still took time to posit that an event like an annual Purge — which is credited with bringing America back from complete economic collapse and reducing both crime and unemployment to nearly zero — was just the logical end of real-life class warfare debates, an event where the moneyed either hole up in expensive bunkers or buy extravagant weapons to hunt the have-nots.

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Across two sequels and one prequel, the Purge films built out its world to explain how, at a low point in American history, the New Founding Fathers of America, a radical political party, not only instituted the Purge, but gamed it, explicitly intervening to wipe out dissenters and political opponents while keeping the populace willing if not downright eager to participate.

The Purge franchise is a blunt condemnation of modern political discourse and an indictment of those who perpetuate it to further their own interests. It's no coincidence that the franchise's cartoonishly evil politicians dress up their rhetoric with religious overtures, or that it underlines how profitable the Purge is for insurance companies and the NRA. The Purge recognizes that if politics are, at their best and most functional, a noble endeavor, a way for people with disparate views and desires to build a society, then politics, when they slip, can easily become something sinister. The Purge says, with all the subtlety of a thunderstorm, that politics don't stop at words spoken or written, they're the actions that those words call for, or permit. And sometimes those words provide cover for violence.

The world of The Purge, as ludicrous as it may seem, completely flattens the space between political rhetoric and lived experience. It's stark and effective to see a world where punditry about policies that allege to have net positive effects on employment and crime statistics doesn't trickle its way down through the Orwellian doublespeak of lawmakers and pundits, but directly onto the streets, where blood flows one night a year: the blood of poor and marginalized people, kept there by institutional inequality and abandoned at the behest of politicians and corporations who see them not as citizens, but parasites to be exterminated.

Politics, The Purge reminds us, can cost lives — and the people wielding weapons aren't the only ones responsible.

The Purge is an absurd premise for absurd times, a franchise that stumbled its way into relevance, translating our political debates into satirically gross exaggerations. The fact that it works so well will never stop being uncomfortable.

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Joshua Rivera is a freelance entertainment journalist and critic who has written for GQ, Vulture, and Entertainment Weekly.