Avast, matey, minor spoilers ahead!
Let me set the scene for a little television show called The 100.
On a dilapidated space station 97 years after the nuclear ruin of Earth a scarcity of resources has rendered any and all crimes, no matter how minor, punishable by execution. Juvenile offenders are locked up pending a case review on their eighteenth birthday. Clarke Griffin is several months short of that date when she is suddenly marched out of her cell and boarded onto a drop ship with 99 other young offenders (making up the titular 100, in case you didn’t catch that). They are returning to the Earth. If it is finally survivable the rest of their station will follow them, if not…well, they probably weren’t going to live long anyway.
However Earth, as it turns out, IS survivable; a feral, unpopulated Eden of natural splendor just waiting to welcome humanity back from whence it sprung. Except that it’s not…actually…unpopulated. And the locals are not exactly pleased with the new arrivals.
Don’t you hate it when thousands of people survive the nuclear holocaust and forget to tell you?
Suddenly the 100’s original fact-finding mission becomes a battle to survive against a much larger hostile force, the natural disasters of the ground, and a shadowy threat only ominously alluded to as “Mountain Men.” Meanwhile, back in the sky, the space station’s life support is on life support and the people on board must face their own fraught decisions if they are going to see the back end of three months.
Now, I don’t know if this little summary has piqued your interest. It may have, or it may have just sounded like the fairly typical post-apocalyptic fare that is so en vogue these days. However, for those of you who like this kind of story but have never tuned in to The 100 I’m willing to bet I know the biggest reason you’re abstaining. Because it’s the biggest reason that I almost didn’t bother with it back when it premiered in 2014 (and I honestly don’t remember what swayed me, but I’m very glad it did).
The 100 airs on the CW.
Yes the station has had a good run of nerd cred lately with shows like Arrow and iZombie, but the fact is that its programming slate has been dominated for years by teentastic dramedies so soapy that they should come with a rinse cycle for the credits. I spent my teen years rolling my eyes at the likes of One Tree Hill and 7th Heaven, briefly got on board with Gossip Girl as a guilty pleasure until that spun off into insane territory about three years in, and was ready to devil-egg the network headquarters after the history-rage-inducing debut of Reign (you may have caught the Gilmore Girls reference there, a show that ran on WB/CW, but I only discovered and came to enjoy it once it hit syndication on ABC Family, so for me personally I’m not giving the CW a total win on that account).
I am here to tell you as someone more than slightly prejudiced against the CW that The 100 is not reflective of its traditional programming. In fact it’s not typical of anything on network television (not that I’ve seen, anyway). If you feel even a flicker of interest for the premise of the show, but aren’t watching because of the network that hosts it I have five reasons why you should allay your misgivings and start watching immediately (on Netflix. Where the first three seasons are available in their entirety. Don’t just jump in mid-stream on the current fourth season). And if you’re NOT at all intrigued by the premise, then these are five reasons why you should spare The 100 a chance.
5. Impressive, Immersive World-Building
It’s a tricky business throwing an audience into a world that is not their own. They have to be initiated into the rules, mores, and institutions of the story, but doing so in a way that doesn’t feel ham-handed and expository is a hurdle that has thwarted storytellers across all mediums.
In the case of The 100 the world of the story WAS ours, and so it bears some familiarity (especially among the denizens of the Ark), but after a massive nuclear disaster, and nearly a century’s struggle to preserve the species the rules of the game have definitely changed. The 100 communicates this, with the exception of a little voice over at the top of the pilot episode, through a method that is more heavily show rather than tell. The reactions that characters have to an event or a piece of information says everything necessary without attempting to spoon feed to the audience. When important details are directly presented they are often integrated seamlessly into plot-specific dialogue rather than thrown out for the sake of explicitivity. History and backstories come to us in bits and pieces as they relate to the situation at hand. This refreshingly assumes a level of intelligence in the viewership that is sadly lacking in so much network television; “Here is the world: Listen, watch, keep up.”
And what a world we are presented with. Our stage is set with a dying space station known as the Ark, and a post-apocalyptic Earth returned to a state of nature. How would humanity navigate such a stage? Thus far we have seen three very specific factions seeking to demonstrate how, all with their own specific cultures that have grown up around their circumstances. The main characters, of a faction later known as the Skaikru (Grounder speak- literal meaning: Sky People. No one said Grounders were creative), hail from the the Ark. They have spent their lives in orbit, functioning on severely limited resources but with advanced technological amenities. Everything they have looks slightly worn, handed down many times, used and repurposed until it cannot possibly serve any further function. They have survived through ingenuity and sheer willpower, and so, while ultimately pragmatic, as a group they tend to be more idealistic than their ground-side counterparts (“If we just think about this some more we can discover a solution that works for everyone”).
Ruthlessness is often the name of the game when it comes to the humans who were left to survive on our decimated planet. The Grounders, though distinct in the specifics of their twelve clans, share the same general culture, one carved out of humanity’s desperate struggle to survive post-nuclear holocaust. In that culture we see the ruin of ours (sometimes literally); old remnants of the world as we recognize it integrated into a new pre-industrial tribal society. Listening carefully the audience will even recognize some of our modern vernacular reshaped into the Grounders’ unique language, while recognizable items of clothing, furniture, and crockery appears throughout their settings as salvaged goods. Their mores are also familiar, albeit more archaic to the modern eye; they are a violent society, more formal and ritualistic, heavily honor based, and holding firm to a strong sense of balance and retribution.
Meanwhile, in a sealed underground bunker, a faction of humanity nearly identical to that of modern America continues to exist. Our pre-nuclear world literally entombed for a century; preserved by methods far more brutal and amoral than any we see enacted by the other two primary groups.
As much as we are given to digest on screen, one gets the sense that there is infinitely more to see and know. The 100 has created a future that feels as expansive as present reality; a viewer can easily imagine a richly developed, complex world that extends far beyond the frame of the television screen. However they don’t need to reach out and wave at their audience. By the simple act of leaving the door open they invite us in, trusting that it won’t be long before we are lost in their world amongst them.
4. Diversity as the Rule
Did you know that when human beings start intermarrying regardless of race or ethnicity, most of us wind up being some shade of brown? Also interesting? When your species has been nearly annihilated your chances of saving are vastly improved when you don’t get stupidly picky about the pigmentation of your procreative partner.
The 100’s showrunners did nothing more radical than embrace the logic of their story construct, and they did it in time when a commitment to diverse casting policies could be seen as progressive in the most matter-of-fact sense. In a day and age where producers are starting to have to get really creative to defend non-inclusive casting choices, the team over at The 100 simply didn’t bother trying. Their principal cast features several caucasian actors, yes, but also Bob Morley (half Filipino), Christopher Larkin (Korean American), Henry Ian Cusick (half Peruvian), Ricky Whittle (of West Indies descent), Lindsey Morgan (Mexican American), and Isaiah Washington (African American). Similarly, the supporting players and ensembles of The Ark, the Mountain, and the Grounders are filled with people of all shades; the factors that divide The 100’s people into their various camps are primarily geographical and never racial. It’s almost like humanity is actually just a big melting pot and that race is more of a social construct than anything (the luxury of which would be hard to justify when you’re just trying to ensure the survival of the species overall).
Also encouraging is the total lack of any kind of sexual politics in the story. Characters who are homosexual or bisexual simply…exist…as a normal part of the human landscape; if anyone ever comments about the romantic and/or sexual relationships of other characters it’s never because of the genders of the people involved. Since we, out here in the real world, can’t seem to get over our bizarre Puritan inclination to police everybody’s bedrooms it’s frankly refreshing to experience a fictionalized version of humanity’s future where no one spares a second thought for anyone else’s sexual preferences. I would really like to believe that, even if humans can never get away from our seemingly instinctual tendency to destroy each other, one day we might just realize that we have more important things to focus our concerns on than who does what with whom and which naughty bits.
3. Subversion of Tired Character Tropes
You’re watching a show whose primary cast is all super-attractive twenty-somethings meant to be in their late teens. Boy meets Girl, Boy and Girl work to lead their peers in a bid for survival, Boy and Girl fall for each other, oops, Boy already has a Girlfriend (okay, one that he thought he’d never see again), Girlfriend suddenly shows up. We all know what happens now, right? There will be a love triangle, confused Boy will ping-pong between the two of them, and then will come some passive aggressive contests of will devolving into outright bitchiness as Girl grapples to win Boy away from Girlfriend, who in turn tightens her grip on him in equal measure. They will hate each other forever after. Right?
Wrong. When the above scenario was teed up in early-mid Season One I braced for the cliche impact that never came. Girl immediately backed off, with some tension and awkwardness she and Girlfriend moved forward as allies in the greater struggle, each with great respect for the other’s abilities, Boy’s emotional confusion was met with a resounding, “We have more important stuff to deal with,” from both ladies.
Not one but TWO young women, on a network TV show, who understand that relationship drama is a petty distraction when you’re most immediate hurdles are things like acid fog and murderous adversaries? TWO young women who maturely put their emotions aside to focus on the precarious and dangerous circumstances around them? Am I dreaming?
Nope. Not dreaming, and thrilled to find it so. This was not the very first time that The 100 swerved from the expectations of a CW drama, but it was the first one that really caught me as a viewer. This was the point at which I really started to take the show seriously. They had proven that they were more committed to telling a complex, interesting story (with similarly complex and interesting characters) than going for easy plotting on the back of tried-and-tested genre tropes.
This is a commitment that the showrunners have reaffirmed again and again in the three seasons of the show, both in terms of actual plot points and the pawns that enact them. Character are allowed to be multi-dimensional and to act in ways that are messy and human; while their reasoning is usually clear (and mostly comes from a desire to do right) they screw up in huge ways, they make bad choices, and we as an audience are not always asked to like them, or the things they do. Actions have very real, and sometimes very permanent, consequences. Damage alters their character makeup. Most uniquely, it stands apart from a lot of other teen-centric programming in that none of the character development ever feels like it’s coming from a need to create drama, but rather arising organically from the never ending onslaught of impossible circumstances our cast must contend with.
In short: You, as a viewer, may not agree with (or even like) some of these people, your opinions on them may shift back and forth a dozen times…but you will always be interested to see where they are going.
2. Female Agency as Far as the Eye Can See
If you’re looking for strong, kickass, Bechdel-test-acing women on your TV screen then The 100 is your one-stop shop for some serious girl power. Where to begin with this show? There’s the central figure of Clarke Griffin, a medical student before her arrest, who shoulders the burden of leadership ground-side and faces one shattering decision after another in her ongoing efforts to protect her people. There’s Octavia Blake, Warrior Princess, a second child born illicitly in defiance of the the Ark’s oxygen-conserving one child policy, and subsequently hidden away under the floor of her family’s quarters for fifteen years. Once freed Octavia’s development takes her from giddy butterfly-chasing girl to bona fide sword-wielding badass as she stakes her claim on her own independence. There’s Raven Reyes, the brilliant mechanic with a no-nonsense attitude, and seemingly limitless brain power that is integral to the continued survival of the Skaikru. There’s Lexa, the fierce and pragmatic Commander of the Twelve Clans, and Indra, the fire-eyed Trikru general, and Luna with her remote pacifist enclave. There’s Abby, and Maya, and Hannah, and Anya, Emori, Dr. Tsing, Harper, and Charlotte…it’s such a long list and every one of them brings a new and enriching layer to the show. Even more importantly, while many of these women do have love interests those aspects of their stories are rarely central to their arc, or their role in the story, but rather a little meat of the side (no…pun…intended?) to give more dimension to already complex characters.
Best of all is how many of these women hold significant leadership positions where they are respected by the men around them. Now I heard some grumbling on the message boards back in the first season about how realistic this was really, especially when it came to very young women like Clarke and Lexa who are the driving voices among their respective peoples despite their youth. I’m here to say that I think it actually makes perfect sense considering the realities of the world in The 100 (and also to point out that no one rolled their eyes about Bellamy Blake, a similarly young and less experienced guy, being accepted and respected as a leader).
Among the Grounders, whose lives are harsh and seemingly short (very few elderly Grounders ever appear, even in non-combative villages) skill is the only metric that matters. If the pretty teenage girl is the one who Samurai’d her way through all her (heavily armed) opponents to claim the top job in the land…well yeah, in an extremely violent and fractious society that’s probably who you’d want to follow regardless of her age or her sex. Of course, when she’s also got the military and political acumen to unite the twelve clans for the first time in living memory that would only cement her authority.
On The Ark, where age, formal training, and seniority carry more weight, brains and skill are still recognized, and rewarded, for their own inherent value. Raven may have been junior on the engineering team’s totem pole technically, but everyone acknowledges her mechanical genius. Clarke, with her cool head and diplomatic instincts, was a steadying presence when the original 100 first hit the ground and established a rapport with the Grounders that uniquely positioned her to work as a mediator between the two sides. And Octavia? Well lots of people on The 100 are pretty dismissive of Octavia. Then she rolls her eyes, does what she wants, and usually ends up playing an important part in saving some detractor’s butt.
Indeed, The 100’s entire approach is very much like Octavia’s. They don’t bother questioning whether someone is unfit for their position of authority based on age or sex, instead they show you why they are exactly the right person for the job regardless of the above (and, believe me, if they’re not suitable they’ll show you that too, usually with devastating consequences for everyone involved).
- Juicy Moral Conundrums
As you may have surmised by now, The 100 doesn’t deal in easy. Nothing about the world or the people who populate it can be boiled down to black or white; every choice, every motivation, every event is sketched out in myriad shades of grey. There are no right answers, only less wrong ones, and the less wrong is often heavily dependent on the perspective of the character making the call.
When the person you love commits a truly horrific crime do you protect them? Or do you deliver them to justice? What is more important, your alliances, or your own people? Can you rightly sacrifice a few to potentially save many? These maddening, impossible questions (and many more like them) throw both audience and characters into devastating moral quagmires on a non-stop basis over the course of The 100’s three seasons. As a result it is likewise impossible to truly discern heroes from villains. As everyone scrambles for survival in a harsh and merciless world 99% of the people we encounter in The 100 are acting out of a genuine, passionate desire to make life better for the ones they care about most.
Basically, The 100 is not here to reassure its viewers. Its most relentless message is that life is hard. It’s complicated, it demands sacrifices, and when the struggle for your own survival is on the table you will be forced to reckon, again and again, with which parts of yourself you are willing to lose in order to live. The true struggle is in maintaining your humanity, fighting the urge to devolve into the worst form of our species. Trying to find the bigger picture even in the most ethically fuzzy circumstances. The questions that the show forces a viewer to confront are thorny, wrenching, and deeply riveting, a veritable feast for thought both in terms of the story line and in the broader debates of moral relativism.
However, fascinating commentary on humanity (both present and future) aside, the thing that keeps us watching is the characters who form the heart of the story. As much as we as viewers relish all the elements that make this show interesting, our most immediate concerns are ultimately with these fictional people that we have been allowed to know and care for.
How will these characters ever make it to the peace they so richly deserve?
Do they actually deserve it at all?
The 100, having just debuted Season Four, airs Wednesday nights at 9pm EST on the CW