I’ve made a habit over the years of catching on to very good television shows after everyone else has already gotten there. I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer so much I taught a course on it at Cal, but despite my wife and daughter watching faithfully and constantly telling me I would like it, I didn’t begin until Season 3. (Once I made the decision, I binge-watched the first two seasons as quickly as I could download them, not the legal way but this was pre-On Demand.) The Wire is my favorite show ever, and I jumped in at Season 2, although in that case, it was because we didn’t get HBO until then. And Battlestar Galactica, after which I named our three cats (Starbuck, Boomer, and Six), was not on my radar until critics started talking it up ... don’t remember when I began watching, maybe between the first two seasons.
The 100 has gotten through two seasons, and it’s hard to imagine a show that would appeal less to me on first glance. It’s on the CW, and while it’s true I watch Jane the Virgin, until now, that show was the only CW program I ever watched. When I thought of the CW, I fell on the stereotypes: shows meant for the 18-34 market, featuring boatloads of young, very attractive actors. The 100 certainly has this ... I hadn’t heard of a single one of the young actors on the show, but a lot of them were eye candy in the extreme. And the basic setup is tailor-made for the desired market ... the one hundred teenagers of the title are sent by grownups down to a post-apocalyptic Earth, where for all anyone knows they will die instantly of radiation, thus establishing a primary location for the action that is populated solely by those good-looking young actors. Among the grownups were a few actors I actually recognized ... Paige Turco, Isaiah Washington, Henry Ian Cusick ... and, perhaps more telling, three Battlestar Galactica alumni, Alessandro Juliani, Kate Vernon, and Rekha Sharma (who joined in Season 2).
So, to summarize so far: show for young adults (based, in fact, on a trilogy of YA novels), with a bunch of young actors I never heard of, on a network I rarely watch, with a premise designed to grab that young adult audience from the get-go.
I didn’t watch it. For two seasons, I didn’t watch it. Even when it finally crossed my mind to give it a try, I was put off by the general opinion that it started slow, and didn’t really pick up steam until Episode 5 or so. Still, this helped when at last I decided to play catch-up ... I wasn’t grabbed at first, but I held on, hoping for what was coming. (The primary driver of my intentions was Maureen Ryan, who is probably the show’s top advocate amongst the major critics.)
Here comes spoilers ... I generally try to avoid them, but it’s impossible when trying to explain how The 100 snuck up on me. In Episode 3, one of the main teenage characters is killed. In Episode 4, a 13-year-old commits suicide.
And then came Episode 5, called “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” (calling to mind the BSG episode “Kobol’s Last Gleaming”), in which, due to a lack of oxygen on the space station that has housed the humans for 97 years after the nuclear holocaust that started the events of the series, the powers that be decide that a “culling” is needed. They need to kill off 300 of their people in order to maximize what oxygen remains. Now, maybe if I was watching Game of Thrones on HBO, I’d be thinking “I wonder if they’ll really kill off all of those characters?” But this is a CW show for “kids”. The kids on Earth are trying to contact the adults in The Ark (as they call the space station), and it’s easy to see that they will make contact in the nick of time, the powers that be will see that the Earth is now habitable, they won’t have to kill the 300, and all will be well.
Except the contact isn’t made. And the culling takes place. And 300 people die on a show that doesn’t have a very large cast of characters to begin with. And their deaths were demanded by good leaders who see no other option.
On the CW.
OK, I was convinced. Over the course of the next season-and-a-half, we get scenes of torture, we get “reapers” who are savage cannibals, we get living humans being “harvested” for their blood (and later their bone marrow), we see signs of war (and eventually more than signs), we see large numbers of people left to die, we see political intrigue as the various factions get a series of new leaders.
All of this works to confound the viewer ... what will they do next? Thoughts of the CW are long gone ... the show has made the network irrelevant.
You may wonder why I’ve mentioned Battlestar Galactica more than once. Outside of a connection to sci-fi, the shows are not the same. But Battlestar Galactica was a great show because it used genre to investigate big questions. Politics, identity, religion, ethics and morals ... these were all part of BSG, and they made the show more than generic. The 100 has a sci-fi basis, and it gets your attention by confounding expectations. But where it really shines is by showing the ramifications for every action. No one is spared, particularly leaders who must constantly make decisions based on the conflict between the good of the many and the good of the individuals. Some of those decisions are horrific ... lots and lots of people die, usually people who don’t deserve it, always in the name of something “greater”. Everyone is touched. The 100 makes clichés into something real. “Maybe there are no good guys” is facile, except by the time that line is delivered (at the end of Season 2), we’ve seen evidence to suggest facile is not the best word to describe what we’ve seen. The person who says that is the same person who helped put her husband in an airlock ... the person she is talking to, her daughter, has saved her world but lost her soul.
Perhaps the most commonplace idea here that works better than you’d think is the good old generation gap. On The Ark, the teenagers are prisoners. On Earth, they are responsible for themselves and everything they confront. When the adults finally get to Earth, the interaction between the two groups is fascinating, because the adults want to reassert command, and we’ve seen the kids make plenty of mistakes and we might even side with the grownups, except the grownups have no idea what life on Earth has become, while the kids (they really aren’t kids any longer) have seen it for the dangerous place it really is. The show actually goes a bit too many times at this ... a grownup will give a command, a young adult will contest them, the grownup will note that they know best, the young person will do what they want anyway, because they actually do know best. It’s an interesting inversion that surely plays well with a CW audience. Gradually, you notice that leaders from other factions bypass the grownups on a regular basis ... for instance, when the “grounders” (people who survived the holocaust) want to communicate with the “Sky People”, they don’t go to Mom, they go to the daughter, because they know who is really in charge.
I don’t know if I can single out any particular actor ... the entire cast is very good. It is a female-centric show without preening ... a majority of the main characters are females, the most important leaders are women, and the matter-of-fact way this is addressed actually makes it more powerful. You just gradually realize that the women are more likely to know what’s what. Of course, this also puts them in positions where they can fuck up, and as I noted, everyone on The 100 fucks up, often with the most dire consequences. And no one gets away with anything. The people who fuck up are changed by their actions ... even if they did “what had to be done”, something inside them is destroyed. To the extent this is believable, I’d give great credit to that unknown-to-me cast of young actors. In some ways, Eliza Taylor, who plays Clarke, the leader of the teenagers, has the biggest challenge. A typically pretty blonde, she looks like someone who gets cast as the dumb friend. Taylor has spoken to the value in being able to play a complex character who exists as something beyond pretty and dumb. It’s a bit of a running joke, but Clarke, and many of the other characters, are generally completely covered in dust and dirt and mud, deflecting any desire to see them only as sex objects. This makes interviews with the cast rather fun, because we’re not used to seeing them after they’ve had a shower. (It’s even more fun that Taylor and Bob Morley, the male lead, are from Australia and don’t sound anything like their characters.)
I can’t tell if I’ve properly conveyed how good The 100 is. If nothing else, I hope I’ve disabused people of the notion, which I once shared, that it can’t be any good. The first several episodes are only OK, the rest of Season 1 is much better, and Season 2 moves it into the highest levels of current TV.
Season 3 begins on January 21. The first two seasons can be streamed on Netflix.
Here’s a sort of Mo Ryan manifesto: