tv Reporting From The Set Of The Purge With Reality Knocking On The Door
There’s a young woman nearby in restraints, screaming. She’s surrounded by people, but none of them seem very eager to help her. To say more would be to spoil the episode, but let me assure you, it’s fucked up.
A group of us are currently taking refuge from the sweltering Louisiana heat, soaking up the cool air of a soundstage while watching the cast and crew of this show set up for another shot. They’re about halfway through filming season one of The Purge, an adaptation of the hit film franchise that’s premiering on USA Network today, and the set design is a horror fantasist’s dream come true. From the outrageous Day-Glo aesthetic of one stage to the eerie minimalism of another, the series isn’t going to want for engaging visuals. But that’s never been the main appeal of this high-concept premise—and the new show, in particular, will be about figuring out just what all is there to unpack, psychologically and sociopolitically, once you get past the initial action-horror rush of the conceit.
“What is there to care about in this alternate universe, other than the night of the Purge itself?” was my first thought, when I heard about this new iteration of the story. That’s the mission of the TV adaptation—to get beyond the gonzo appeal of the films, to something more expansive, more involved, more everything; to turn a one-night bacchanalia of mayhem into an ongoing narrative as rich as any drama out there.
“We had a pre-greenlight writers’ room, and if I ever do that again, light me on fire.” Purge showrunner Thomas Kelly is standing in a set location known as Pete’s Cantina—a violence-free neutral zone during the night of the Purge—and holding court before the assembled journalists, explaining the perils of being granted the opportunity to start writing for a series more than half a year before production began. It’s given him the opportunity to craft some very strong scripts, he feels, but the downside is clear: “Then you give studios and networks like seven more months to give you notes on scripts.” A ticking clock, he ruefully admits, can be a very good friend to a writer.
Kelly may seem an unlikely choice to head up a genre exercise that traffics in so much chaos. A novelist-turned-TV-writer who graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School Of Government with a master’s degree in public administration, he doesn’t talk like someone tasked with delivering a show where murder is legal for one night. “You can watch it as a pure sort of entertainment, a thrill ride,” he says, but it’s clear where his interests lie. “Through the characters [we can] explore the issues of the day, whether it’s race or class or the reality of a really small percentage of people getting all the power. How does that affect the way we live our lives?”
That sense of addressing universal issues carries over into nearly every aspect of the project, much as the movies have increasingly foregrounded issues of race or class over gratuitous violence. (Kelly notes screenwriter James DeMonaco has always steered clear of gore, despite the intense violence of the films.) Despite filming in New Orleans, the show is set in an anonymous “small American city,” part of Kelly’s concern with making sure the series not only addresses a broadly diverse scope of characters and lives, but zeroes in on the complex issues of American economic turmoil. “You know, I come from deep in the white working class and I think you watch the media and it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re like the orangutans in the zoo and they created Trump,’ and obviously it’s a lot more complex than that,” he says.
“I’ve been squawking about deindustrialization since I was in the Kennedy School Of Government at Harvard 30 years ago, and nobody wanted to listen. Like, how do we deal with this? How do we deal with this huge structural change in the economy? There’s no other industrialized democracies in the world who just allow cities to be obliterated and millions of workers to be put out of work without any real attention to that and remedy for that. So here we’ve created a disenfranchised class of people and geography, and we sit back and go, ‘Oh, they’re all racist morons,’ which is bullshit. Some are racist morons. But I’ve met racist morons at Harvard.”
He knows this is probably not the angle USA wants to hear when promoting its splashy new show, but he’s also smart enough to realize it’s likely the biggest draw for a good portion of the TV audience that doesn’t want to just sit through a 10-hour version of the Purge movies, a notion that sounds exhausting at best. So while there’s plenty of Purge-night excitement (about “70 percent Purge night, 30 percent flashbacks/outside the Purge”) in each episode, his attention keeps returning to character development, and how those characters help illuminate complicated real-world issues that are uncomfortably close for most of us. “This is going to work best,” he emphasizes, “if the audience feels like this could happen 10 minutes from now, 10 yards away.”
Of course, that’s not necessarily a tough ask when you’ve got a show with families being ripped apart and people being thrown into cages. At the time of this visit, it’s the height of public attention (and outrage) over the Trump administration’s new practice of separating children from parents and locking them away behind bars, regardless of how young. For the cast of The Purge, daily life and the fun dystopic fantasy series they signed up for are starting to look a little too much alike.
“It’s an adventure, most of all.” Everyone I speak to on the show drops a variation on this line at some point, part of what I’m rapidly surmising are some clear instructions from their PR handlers to avoid current events whenever possible and, god willing, keep Trump’s name out of their mouths. But there’s only so much you can do when real life intrudes in such a way on your primetime horror-drama before people start being honest.
“A scenario where a country, the leader of the free world, the leading country of the free world, has 12 hours to be a lawless state? ...That is so scary. And so possible. Because something has shifted in our global society where people are quite brazen and fiercely free in expressing thoughts like these.” That’s Amanda Warren, the actor playing Jane, a woman who has found herself stymied by a business culture that refuses to allow her to advance regardless of talent. So she channels her frustration into a Purge-related decision. “[Jane] is trying to get a good result out of this. Something that is well deserved—and this night, this law, presents her with an opportunity to resolve some things and set things in motion that goes into a better direction for her and what she believes for the community around her.”
Warren, like the other actors, relishes the mix of real-world drama and subversive satire at work in the series and its outsized moral dilemmas. Praising Kelly and his writers, the veteran of projects like The Leftovers and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri rattles off the writers and directors who she’s worked with that have similar facility for blending the horrible and the hilarious: “Whether it be Martin McDonagh, Barry Levinson, Damon Lindelof... good people. I always do that look [at the resume] and I’m like, ‘Lucky gal, lucky lucky gal.’”
But despite the obvious injunctions against making parallels to current events too explicit, she refuses to pretend there aren’t lines to be connected when it comes to, say, the New Founding Fathers of The Purge and certain white supremacist movements that may or may not have received the blessing of being called “very fine people” by the current White House occupant. “You know, people would call me stupid if I weren’t saying that,” she says, her degree from NYU’s Gallatin school coming into play as she discusses the social and psychological touchstones of her character as it relates to contemporary society. “I mean, that is what it is right now. We are such a fractured, isolated global society that anything is possible. Anything.”
It’s a refrain the other actors cautiously echo, everyone trying speak diplomatically while still acknowledging the glaring realities staring them—and viewers—in the face. Lili Simmons plays Lila, the daughter of prominent New Founding Fathers-affiliated parents. She sees it throughout her story arc, which begins at a party for the well-to-do on the night of The Purge. “You really see Lila struggling. The people she’s talking to at this party are completely oblivious that this [Purge] is a horrible thing, and they have no idea what’s happening to the lower-income houses.” Simmons says the class-struggle element hits hardest for her. “Oh, especially with the new tax laws,” she says. “Excuse my French, but the lower class is always getting screwed.”
For Hannah Anderson and Colin Woodell, who play married couple Jenna and Rick, the political situation plays out differently, her being Canadian and him a U.S. citizen. “Regardless if I was on this show or not, I’m just very frustrated,” Woodell mentions. “I’m constantly reading something or seeing something new on a daily basis and it’s really difficult. I’m at the point right now where I just want to block it out, but that’s not my duty as an American, to block the truth out.”
Anderson tries to channel her real-world concern into her work. “Being on a show isn’t going to solve any of the [problems] happening in America, but I think it makes me wanna fight harder as my character to want to help people,” she says. “It really ignites a frustration and anger inside of me that I think is helpful, actually, in this [fictional] world. As a Canadian I feel there is a bit of a helplessness, because I can stand up for people but not in the same way as if I was able to vote here.” Still, they both express relief that at the end of the day they can leave the world of the Purge. “We get to laugh,” she adds, not coincidentally with a serious-topic-puncturing laugh, as if to prove the point.
Even though so much of that rich, meaty drama is what will give this series heft, let’s not forget that at the end of the day it’s a gonzo genre piece where all crime is legal, and things get bananas. “Think of all the fun things you could do!” Simmons offers with a playful clap. “I’m like, why does killing have to be the fun one? Can’t we do something else? Like go steal a Louis Vuitton bag, or a car, yeah! That would be really fun. That’s what I would wanna do.”
Clearly, everyone has given a lot of thought to the question of what they’d do were they truly in their characters’ shoes the night of the Purge. “I think there is a part of me that would love to be thrust into this exhilarating tension of not knowing how I get from A to B and what’s going to happen,” Woodell confesses, “but I really am a bit of a wuss. I am pretty set on the idea that I would lock myself up somewhere.”
“You could come to Canada,” Anderson reminds him with a laugh.
He readily agrees. “Right. She [Woodell gestures to Anderson.] told me she had an extra bed, so I would probably come to Winnipeg.”
Warren has an even more philosophical response to the question of what you would do, were you really in the Purge. “How freely are you willing to admit that?” she says, and it’s a valid point—the opportunity of the Purge presents an outlet for darker desires.
Of course, none of them even know if their characters will make it to the end of the season. “I’m like, ‘Do you know anything?’” Simmons says about pestering the writers. “‘I need to know. Tell me.’ I definitely try to pry it out of them.” Not that any of them would trade the roller-coaster ride of the experience for certainty. “It’s been really fun, like getting a new Harry Potterbook,” she adds. “Remember when you would have to wait for those things? I feel like it’s that.”
That sense of excitement was reflected in the face of everyone I walked past while exploring the set. From camera operators to script supervisors, there was a sense of glee readily apparent, a feeling that the whole project was a giant playground of dark-humored fun that was actually more enjoyable in some ways for its current relevance. It’s a vibe that hopefully carries over into the show itself, a world gone mad that nonetheless reflects ours in nearly every way save one. And even that one boundary is starting to look a little threadbare, with the daily death toll by gun violence rising.
“We’re numb to it [the real-life tragedy] at this point,” Warren says. “And I never thought I’d say that about myself, because I tend to think of myself as incredibly compassionate, and someone who’s very in touch with my emotional life, so to see certain things on television repeatedly—same stuff, different place. That’s scary, to say, ‘Oh, that happened again,’ without any....” she trails off. “It’s not Columbine anymore. It’s Tuesday.”
It’s enough to make you wonder if there’s a slow-motion Purge already in place.