"I don't buy it."
Those are four words no writer likes to hear, and yet they are a fairly common reaction after reading a spec. I've read plenty of scripts where one of the most significant reasons I decline to pass it on is that I simply cannot accept the conceit of the story. This is significant because I believe most readers do enter a story with a willingness to accept much of it on its own terms. An audience is usually willing to accept the reality with which they are presented.
What usually threatens to pop that suspension of disbelief is when the characters or the premise act counter to human nature. This is particularly dangerous when the setting is recognizable and familiar to the audience. They know human nature and they have a pretty good idea what a normal person would do in a situation that feels like their daily life.
But if you have a seemingly normal person in a setting that's almost normal except for one MAJOR difference - then that puts you in an "uncanny valley." The audience might perceive phoniness in the conceit and that often leads to an outright rejection of it.
And that is why I'm not likely to see the upcoming release The Purge. Watch the trailer.
I admit it's a trifle unfair to judge a film by its marketing components. But then again, this is the material that's designed to get me to plunk down my $14. As I watch that trailer, all I can think is "I don't buy it." And this is coming from someone who's a sucker for contained thrillers.
The hurdle for me is that I can't wrap my brain around a society that would say, "Hey, for one night a year, anything goes! Murder, rape, robbery... and then come sun-up, we're all cool with it." I reject the idea that a functional society would even attempt such a thing.
And then, to put forth the notion that somehow this one night of blood lust apparently gets all of this out of everyone's systems so much that the rest of the year is a utopia? It's hard to imagine human nature working that way. So I don't buy that people would be on board for this, and even if I did, I don't buy that it would work. (Interestingly, I had the exact same issue with a pilot this season that failed to get a series order - perhaps for that very reason.)
But let me point out a counter-example that I did accept. The Hunger Games is based on the premise that once a year - 12 districts each offer up two children to compete in a battle royale to the death. This competition is treated with all the pomp and circumstance of a Super Bowl.
On its face that seems just as absurd as the things I attacked The Purge for. So what's the difference? The world presented in The Hunger Games does not look like our own. The Purge seems to be set in modern suburbia (despite the note that it's about a decade in the future.) All of society is completely upended in Hunger Games, to the point where the United States doesn't exist anymore. The cultural and visual distinctions are enough to give the viewer the emotional distance so they're not constantly thinking "this would never happen."
If any of you DO end up seeing The Purge, let me know if the movie makes the idea more palpable than the trailer does.