The first season of USA’s television extension of the popular (and probably eternal) The Purge franchise was little more than a rehash of the various films that had come before. The decision to stay in the franchise’s chosen lane of government-sanctioned anarchy and the annual madness that ensues during a 12-hour period makes sense; after all, the show’s producers likely wanted to avoid alienating their devoted fan base by venturing too far from what happy ticket-buyers had come to expect. That’s all set to change with season 2, however, as the series takes a much-needed turn away from the actual Purge, and finds itself with an intriguing premise that helps color a world obsessed with and largely run by its anticipation of each successive Purge.
To do so, the series shifts its attention to the 364 days between Purges. That shouldn’t worry Purge fans, though, as the season premiere, ‘This is Not a Test,’ takes place in the waning hours of the most recent wave of anarchy, introducing a new crop of characters, notably (the always fantastic) Derek Luke as Marcus Moore, a doctor who finds his expensive anti-Purge security system circumvented by a masked intruder trying to kill him and his wife Michelle (Rochelle Aytes).
Like season 1, the story is sprawling, and tells a number of parallel, sometimes overlapping stories, only this time, it works to bring something new to the table. This time the series includes a couple of frat bros, Ben (Joel Allen) and his cowardly buddy played by Matt Shively, who make the mistake of venturing out on Purge night in order to go full Logan Paul and snag photos of people who’ve taken their own lives under a suicide bridge. At the same time the fraternity brothers' excursion turns elaborately violent, when Ben falls into the trap of a Purger in a white mask with ‘God’ scrawled on the forehead, a group of high-tech thieves are robbing a bank, only to be caught unawares by a group of Jackals (i.e., thieves who steal from thieves on Purge night). The standoff between the two groups puts them all in a time crunch, as Purge rules state anyone still in the process of committing a crime when the bell sounds will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. This puts team leader Ryan Grant (Max Martini) in a bind when his reckless teammate risks being in violation of the rules for some extra cash.
This time, The Purge also introduces Esme Carmona (Paola Nuñez), a security professional who monitors activity during and after the Purge, to seek out violators and keep those whose governmental rank is high enough to make it illegal for any harm to come to them during those chaotic 12 hours. At first, this seems like an extension of the franchise’s behind-the-scenes look at the confounding bureaucracy that helped create and implement something as ridiculous and disturbing as the Purge, but, like all the other storylines, it soon reveals itself to be fundamentally different than what’s come before. That is mostly due to the fact that these characters will soon be abiding by the laws that govern society during the other 364 days of the year, and will do so in the direct aftermath of the bedlam they’ve either witnessed, participated in, or were the victim of just hours earlier.
The shift effectively creates a brave new world for The Purge franchise, one where the writers are given a chance to more fully explore the consequences of that single 12-hour period, and to draw a more complete picture of a world that has effectively become addicted to the lawlessness of a single night. And by placing its narrative and characters in a society still mostly governed by laws that more closely resemble the world viewers recognize, the series must rewrite its own rule book. As it turns out, doing so results in a clever reinvention of the franchise, one that’s reinforced by some strong performances - particularly Luke’s, as Marcus discovers there’s more to his Purge nightmare than meets the eye.
Season 2 seems particularly interested in examining how the Purge’s sanctioned violence and criminality only begets more violence and criminality. That might threaten to turn the series into Purge Preppers, were it not for examples of how the world has become increasingly unfazed by the Purge, and how the population have either become numbed to its violence and lawlessness (unless it impacts them directly) or, worse, are inspired to take to streets and participate. It's a positive sign that, of the episodes made available to critics ahead of time, The Purge appears committed to using its time away from the Purge to more fully consider the world it has created.
If nothing else, The Purge season 2 offers welcome new spin on the long-running franchise, one that has the potential to venture down avenues always hinted at but never explored. It may be overdue for a franchise that has largely stuck to a single successful formula (and who can blame them?), but better late than never.
The Purge season 2 premieres Tuesday, October 15 @9pm on USA.