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Nonfiction

TV Review: May 2017

The 100
Created by Jason Rothenberg
Produced by Bonanza Productions, Alloy Entertainment, Warner Bros. Television, CBS Television Studios
2014-current

The CW is known for its wide array of superhero and dark fantasy shows, from Arrow to iZombie. It’s even doing well in the non-speculative arena with breakout hits like Jane the Virgin and the critically acclaimed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But one of the network’s strongest offerings is the ambitious post-apocalyptic epic, The 100, now in its fourth season and renewed for a fifth. You might be sick of apocalypse stories. You might not want another grim show in your nightly lineup. Maybe you have something against teen protagonists. We’re here—as two people who rarely agree on what to watch—to tell you why you need to give it a try anyway.

Developed from a young adult book series by Kass Morgan, the premise of The 100 is simple enough: In the distant future, radiation has rendered Earth’s surface uninhabitable. Humanity has fled to a number of massive “arks” in Earth’s orbit. Due to dwindling resources, however, the arks have started to fail. Leaders make the cold calculation to send criminals back to Earth’s surface to test its survivability. Because adults are immediately executed when convicted of crimes, the only criminals available are juveniles: one hundred of them, in fact. Sending these young people to Earth serves the dual purpose of conserving life support on the arks and providing valuable intelligence on Earth conditions. But when the hundred arrives on Earth, nothing turns out the way they expect.

Chris: You introduced me to The 100. What was it about the show that first hooked you?

Jenn: I was onboard from the pilot. It does a great job setting up the premise and establishing characters who have compelling backstories and goals, sometimes in line with others, sometimes not. The first few episodes have a Lord of the Flies feel as the characters face their newfound freedom in various ways. But as the series progresses, it quickly develops into a rich, multifaceted drama that is riveting, addictive, and morally complex. If there’s one thing you should know about this show, it’s that nothing stays the same. Characters change over time, and the plot and tone can change in the space of one or two episodes. If you don’t like where the show is going, just keep watching. It’ll be going somewhere new in a few hours.

That said, I almost stopped watching early in season one, at the death of one of the more likable characters. A friend urged me to keep watching and I did. Soon after, the show shifted away from its early chaotic episodes and hooked me completely. So my recommendation is this: If you love it or hate it immediately, go with that feeling. If you’re anywhere in between, give it a good five episodes before you decide.

Chris: That’s great advice. It took me an episode or two to get past my impression of the show as superficial eye candy . . . which may have been my initial barrier to entry. Whatever its origins, The 100 quickly proves to be a robust and challenging series, initially as a survival drama. You mention Lord of the Flies, which certainly leaps to mind; the more genre-specific comparisons are surely Battlestar Galactica and Lost, ensemble shows with similarly urgent and compelling openings. But while both of those shows gradually exhausted their early goodwill with rambling, seat-of-the-pants narratives, The 100 manages to always feel structurally on-target, even as its episodes are jam-packed with character and plot . . . and even as it shifts gears and adds levels from season to season. For me, in fact, it sometimes feels like several different shows at the same time: There are so many angles from which to view it. Young adult, survival story, war epic, allegory, and so forth. This makes it a great crossover show, since I think it services numerous tastes and viewing styles.

Jenn: This works because The 100 never loses sight of its themes. Some shows have writers’ rooms that are making everything up as they go (I’m looking at you, Battlestar), and that is so clearly not the case here. Perhaps that’s a holdover from The 100’s YA roots—you can have just as much death and destruction in YA (indeed, the casualties in this show rival or perhaps exceed those in Game of Thrones), but the deaths are thoughtful. They can be senseless within the story, but must be purposeful from behind the scenes. I think a lot of TV shows equate tragedy with art, but The 100 is art about tragedy.

Chris: Absolutely agree on this. And it calls to mind another strength of a show: By and large, it is very much in control of its messaging. The show has a sprawling cast of characters, and throwing them into conflict is inherently necessary in this style of ensemble series, but unlike many shows, the characters of The 100 choose sides mindfully, and often both sides of the argument have valid points of view. Compare this against Lost, for example, which is rife with contrived, arbitrary factioning. There, the showrunning seams often show: Characters have arguments for the sake of it, or for logistical reasons, or to pad the plot. In The 100, the conflicts are organic, the factions aren’t arbitrary, and the substance of the arguments actually matters. From an ethics perspective, it may be the most interesting show on television.

Jenn: This emphasis on theme is brilliantly realized through the show’s characters. Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor) is the show’s hero, the charismatic daughter of one of the Ark’s leaders, imprisoned because she threatened to tell the truth about the Ark’s doomed future. She is idealistic but practical, both an artist and an apprentice medic used to making tough decisions. Indeed, triaging becomes one of Clarke’s most utilized skills. Her journey through the show sees her struggling to find a balance between keeping her people alive and making the sorts of ruthless calculations the adults made in the pilot episode. She is the living embodiment of the fear that we will become our parents. But Clarke knows herself well and her change is incremental. Most of the other characters are neither burdened nor blessed with such self-knowledge, and undergo more dramatic personal transformations.

Chris: Some of which are quite harrowing, and others inspiring . . . I’m tempted to name names, but I want to avoid spoilers! Instead I’ll veer into why I think it’s important to start the discussion of character with Clarke: because she’s a leader. The 100 is extremely interested in leadership, providing many strong characters displaying different leadership styles: Clarke’s rival in the hundred, Bellamy (Bob Morley); the embattled adult leaders of the ark, Thelonious Jaha (Isaiah Washington), Dr. Abigail Griffin (Paige Griffin), and Marcus Kane (Henry Ian Cusick); and later, the stoic Grounder leader Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and the ruthless Charles Pike (Michael Beach). This fascination with leadership goes beyond merely providing figureheads for obligatory TV conflict; it harkens back to the show’s consistent, deep focus on ethics. These leader characters (and more) are emblematic of ways of existing in the world, of how to behave and interact and govern, and how to handle the complexities of coexistence. This is the show’s driving central allegory, its pointed commentary on the timeless human struggle, and the show feels so much bigger than it looks . . . if that makes sense.

But there are also the followers, those characters swept up in the forces beyond their control, who chose sides and back up positions and make their own tough choices. My favorite is still the show’s itinerant, chaotic-neutral survivalist Murphy (Richard Harmon), but there are many, many others—some of them, perhaps, failed or defeated leaders. When faced with opportunity, or injustice, or tragedy, how do you react? The 100 delves into the psychology of those decisions, and leverages its huge, talented cast toward exploring all the options.

But now we’re gushing. Is there anything about the show you don’t like?

Jenn: Let’s be honest: Most of these characters should be dead ten times over by the fourth season, and only some of them are. Go in with your disbelief pre-suspended, and you’ll be fine. It’s worth it.

Chris: I have to agree on the characters’ superhuman resilience. Were they all descended from Jack Bauer? Come on, now, cauterizing wounds with a red-hot poker shouldn’t cure all ills!

Jenn: And then there’s season three. The writers chose to handle an event in season three so poorly that even their most diehard fans rebelled and tried to sink the show’s ratings. That is a serious amount of (justifiable) anger. The 100 is a fantastically diverse and feminist show. Women are doctors, engineers, soldiers, warriors, and leaders. There are times when there are two, three, or four factions all with different agendas, and none of them are being led by white men. By season four, there is regular LGBTQ representation. They do all this and they make it look easy. (Because, seriously, it is easy.) But even when a show does so much right, without full representation in the writers’ room, it’s still possible to promulgate harmful tropes. Since the show is in its fourth season now and has been renewed for a fifth, they have time to try to earn back their fans’ trust.

Chris: And I hope they do. The narrative wind-down at the end of season three was epic, and if the series can pull together a few more sequences that strong before sticking the landing on its ultimate finale, it could cement itself as an SF classic. This current Golden Age of TV is so robust that it’s easy to overlook a gem like The 100, which perhaps looks disposable at a casual glance, but really has so much more going on than some of the prestige dramas snapping up all the awards.

Jenn: From the beginning, the showrunners have described The 100 as a tragedy, and they certainly don’t flinch from killing characters. Normally I wouldn’t go anywhere near a show as dark as this one, but there are a few things that keep me watching anyway. We’ve already mentioned the complex characters and thoughtful exploration of theme. Let’s add cool science fiction concepts, epic battles, and moments of grace. I can’t talk about the science fiction without spoilers, but I’ll say this: I have had more than one Fringe moment, where I think I know what’s happening and a very cool twist has completely surprised me and taken the story in a new direction. As for battles, you can expect shoot-outs, close-quarter struggles for survival, sword fights, and full-scale sieges. That’s not even mentioning the battlefield medicine, biological warfare, and actual missiles. If at least three characters are not covered in blood and injuries by the end of every episode . . . well, I frankly can’t imagine it.

But here’s where the moments of grace come in. Ultimately, almost every character is simply trying to survive, and most are trying to help others to survive. This isn’t the story of cruelty for cruelty’s sake or some dictator’s grab for more and more power. People want to live, and they want their friends and families to live. And in this struggle, allies are forged, friends are made, lovers find one another. There are victories to celebrate, even if the new season brings a host of new threats. It may be a tragedy, but it is not solely about survival.

Chris: Which circles me back to the point about the show’s versatility. My first tendency is to geek out about the wide-angle analysis: the worldbuilding, the political subtext, the show’s thought-provoking science-fictional allegory. But when you zoom in, you’ve also got that intense human drama, those epiphanies and triumphs or even just quiet moments of connection between characters you’ve grown to care about. Whether you stand back for the spectacle, lean in for the personal, or both, The 100 has got you covered.

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Jenn Reese

Jenn Reese

Jenn Reese writes science fiction and fantasy for readers of all ages. She’s published numerous short stories in places such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Paper Cities. Above World is the Norton Award-nominated first novel in her middle-grade trilogy from Candlewick Press and combines science fiction, mythology, and martial arts. Jenn works as a freelance graphic designer and spends her free time playing video games, watching way too much TV, and planning all the activities she’d enjoy if she ever left her cozy house in Portland. Jenn can be found online at jennreese.com.

Christopher East

Christopher East

Christopher East is a writer, editor, reviewer, and avid consumer of science fiction, fantasy, and spy fiction. His stories have been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Cosmos, Interzone, Talebones, The Third Alternative, and a number of other speculative fiction publications. He’s attended the Clarion and Taos Toolbox writing workshops, and served for several years as the fiction editor for the futurism, science, and technology blog Futurismic. He blogs extensively about writing, fiction, film, television, music, comics, and more at www.christopher-east.com. Currently he lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works for an occupational and environmental health and safety consultancy.