TV critics have lately taken to complaining about how many TV shows there are; they call this the era of “too much TV,” and while I think they’re maybe overstating it I do recognize that there are more options now than ever when it comes to vegging out on the couch. We used to only have three networks, and today you have five networks, untold cable channels and an ever-increasing host of streaming services that have their own original programming.
With all of that stuff - content, the devil calls it - it can be hard to find something actually worth watching. And as if the glut of general content wasn’t enough, we’re also in the middle of a glut of genre content. Never before have there been so many scifi and fantasy TV options; it used to be that nerds watched anything genre-related just because it was so scarce. If you did that today you would never stop watching television.
Amid all of this noise, all of these options, rises a show that has everything going against it. It’s on the CW, one of the lesser channels in terms of prestige, and it’s about very pretty young people. It has one of those soundtracks that sound like it was programmed by people who work at Hot Topic. It’s based on a YA series you never heard of before. It’s got a sort of bad title, The 100, which is really vague and tells you nothing. But it turns out this show isn’t just one of the best TV series running right now, it’s the first show to truly pick up the baton from Battlestar Galactica and give us smart, compelling science fiction that isn’t afraid to approach truly thorny moral questions and have characters react to them in ways that are imperfect… and sometimes straight up genocidal.
Here’s the concept: it’s 100 years after a nuclear war has left the Earth uninhabitable. There is a space station complex, the Ark, in orbit around the planet. Things are tough on the Ark, where a couple of generations have been raised without ever setting foot on their home planet. Air is in short supply, and resources are limited. Things are so tight on the Ark that almost all crime is met with the death penalty… unless you’re under 18, in which case you get locked up in a prison and have your case re-examined when you’re of age.
In the pilot episode there are 100 kids in that prison, in there for crimes of varying severity, and when life support systems start failing the Ark’s elders make a harsh decision - they send the whole lot of them down to the planet to see if humans can return. If the surface remains uninhabitable at the very least the Ark will have gotten rid of enough lungs to give them a few more months to consider other options.
The kids crash land on Earth and discover something they never expected - it’s actually really lovely and totally habitable. It’s so habitable, in fact, that they’re quickly confronted by savage Grounders - humans left over who survived the apocalypse and banded together in primitive and violent tribes. As the 100 deal with internal politics - how do they deal with a 13 year old murderer in their midst, for instance - they also have to put up with attacks from angry Grounders, and the title of the show quickly becomes a misnomer as the ranks of the kids get thinned out considerably.
At first The 100 seems like a fairly standard tween show that is jumping on the YA post-apocalyptic bandwagon; I found myself rolling my eyes at broadly sketched characters who were more types than people in the first few episodes. But once the first season figures itself out - about three episodes into a 12 episode run - all of your expectations get subverted. What’s more, the show very quickly starts confronting these at-first blank kids with truly unthinkable moral quandaries that carry a lot of weight; the writers refuse to ever give the characters an easy out or a comfortable choice. The show also kills off a major character very early, a character who seems like he would be the lead, given another chance. It's a smart move, one that places the stakes in just the right place.
Once it gets running The 100 takes off at an incredible speed, constantly throwing reversals, obstacles and really fucked up situations at the characters. One of the most amazing aspects of the show is the way characters actually change - characters who I hated early in season one grow into true leaders and great warriors by season two, earning my respect along the way. Meanwhile characters who seem full of simple goodness are revealed to be complicated and flawed people who do really awful things.
What makes The 100 special is that the show never judges these actions, and in fact characters and factions who seem to just be bad guys often get fleshed out to the point where you understand why they’re doing what they’re doing… even as they’re drilling holes into conscious, screaming teenagers to extract the marrows from their bones (and killing them viciously in the process). There are a lot of places where The 100 recalls Battlestar (not the least being a penchant for woodsy Vancouver locations) but this is where the resemblance is strongest - an understanding that all sides in a conflict have their reasons, and all sides in a conflict consider themselves reasonable.
The 100 riffs on a couple of properties (season three, airing in 2016, looks to be a take on Terminator’s Skynet), but it does it well and without irritating homages. One of the show’s best riffs is on the Planet of the Apes films; at the end of season one the series takes a hard left turn and introduces a third faction into the fighting - civilized, advanced humans living inside a mountain. It’s like the mutants from Beneath the Planet of the Apes except these guys spend all their time avoiding the radiation outside their base (the 100, growing up in space, have heightened resistance to radiation, as do the Grounders). The addition of the Mountain Men brings a new complexity to season two of The 100, a season that sees a lot of wheeling and dealing and attempts to bring together warring groups against a common enemy, and even examines how there are different groups within the mountain with their own agendas.
Season one is really good, but season two is off the charts crazy. One of the nicest, sweetest characters on the show massacres a village of Grounders, shooting 18 unarmed people. The show follows up on that, having the characters really agonize over how to deal with his actions. More than once the leads - teenagers! - have to make decisions that allow dozens or hundreds to die in order to serve the greater good. And…
There’s a big spoiler here, but it could be the thing that sells you on this show…
… in the season two finale the leads make a decision that is, without hyperbole, the most extreme and fucked up thing I have ever seen on a television show and they basically commit genocide. You spend the entire episode waiting for the writers to give them an out, to allow them an avenue of escape, to de-escalate a situation that has reached impossible levels of tension, but they never do. And so our heroes, the pretty blonde girl and the rugged brunette bad boy, pull a lever and kill hundreds of innocent people, including children, in a horrifying, brutal, graphic and painful way. Anyone used to TV shows that pull their punches will be stunned by what happens on The 100.
On top of all that, the show is very well made, and that's not even a backhanded 'for the CW' comment. The action quotient on The 100 is high - lots of serious, bloody battles and shootouts, with headshots and hands sliced off and bone-crunching punches. There are missile attacks and thrilling space ship crashes, there are last minute escapes from fireballs and massive explosions and large scale industrial sabotage. The body count on the show is through the roof, but every death carries weight - in one episode a hero kills a random evil guard to sneak into a secured facility… and meets the guard’s kid while wearing the dead man’s clothes.
The action and cinematography on The 100 is so good that it has served to compound my critique of other high profile genre shows. Like Agents of SHIELD large parts of The 100 take place inside hallways, and yet these scenes are always compellingly composed and the action in those hallways is always great. Everybody popped over the action in Daredevil, but I think The 100 has consistently better and more varied fight scenes. The show also looks better than any other genre show on TV, highlighting the overly glossy looks of fellow CW shows like Arrow and The Flash. The 100 often looks like a grimy, expertly-lit indie film.
The most surprising thing about The 100 is that it’s not a kissy show. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but you might expect a CW series featuring such pretty (if constantly bruised, blood spattered and dirty) kids to be all about them pairing off and pining for each other and whatnot. There’s some of that, but it isn’t what drives the show - The 100 isn’t soapy at all. Characters fall in love and kiss, but there was an episode in season two where kids bone that was actually shocking because for the previous ten hours all they had been doing was killing people and trying to forge alliances in order to kill yet more people. And when romance does happen it almost always occurs in a way that leads to impossible complications, deeper moral quandaries and devastating betrayals.
By the end of season two The 100 is an almost completely different show than it was in the first few episodes of the series, and I suspect that constant mutation and growth will continue in season three. My one main complaint about the show at this point is that it has pulled back on killing main characters; more than once a main character was put into a ridiculously over-the-top verge of death scenario only to emerge okay if injured next episode and, what’s more, be running around two episodes after that. The show’s insistence on constant reversals can also get a touch exhausting, especially when you’re binge-watching it as I did, but at the same time I appreciate The 100’s dedication to consistently pulling the rug out from under me.
In its own weird way The 100 is fun; those constant, exhausting reversals speak to a heightened pulpiness that is both serious but also kind of zany. There’s never a wink or a tongue in cheek moment in the show, but it is very much engineered for you and your friends to sit on the couch and yell back at the screen as yet another impossible calamity befalls our heroes, or as they’re forced to make yet another impossible choice that will lead only to ruin. That doesn’t sound like fun - and it certainly isn’t the kind of poppy brightness you’ll find on Supergirl - but The 100 gets the grimness right, always keeping it operatic enough to be enjoyable.
The CW has pushed season three of The 100 back to 2016, and while that wait may seem interminable for fans who have been there from the start, this delay gives newbies a chance to catch up with the most slept-on genre show on TV. Seasons one and two - 12 and 16 episodes, respectively - are streaming on Netflix right now, and if you’ve been waiting for a show that has the unyielding confrontational seriousness of Battlestar Galactica, The 100 is the show for you. It’s a show that will walk right up to the line and, again and again, stomp right past it, showing you things you can’t believe you’re seeing and making you sympathize with characters doing things you can’t believe they’re doing. I don’t even know how the show can top the season two finale, but I’m sure the writers will find a way to make it excruciating, bloody and deeply morally compromised.