Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The 100: TV's best sci-fi show comes from an unexpected place

It's time to stop writing off The CW.  Around the internet, it still gets treated as the annoying teen sibling of the rest of the major networks, and any new show that they put out is met with groans and skepticism.  But while it hasn't produced the next great drama yet, The CW has put out some decent shows over the last few years.  The Carrie Diaries was fun before it got cancelled.  Reign is super fun, while also being a bizarre mess.  The Vampire Diaries was known for its blistering plot momentum and jaw-dropping twists in its heyday.  I don't watch Arrow, but people never shut up about how good it is.  In most of those shows, you still have to deal with teen characters making moony-eyes at each other, but they're good despite that problem.  They still put out shows of questionable quality, to be sure, but even most of those are more mediocre than terrible.  And yet, as a whole, The CW doesn't get taken very seriously by many television fans.

Even I sort of dismissed The 100 when it first came around.  For the uninitiated, the show takes place 97 years after nuclear warfare has left the Earth uninhabitable, and the few thousands who were able to escape fled to a space station named The Ark.  Unfortunately, The Ark's oxygen supply is running low, to the point where there will be none left in six months, so the station's council decides to send 100 juveniles in their prison to Earth to see if it has become livable again.  I found the premise intriguing and enjoyed the pilot well enough (I never graded it for Pilot Talk, but I probably would've given it a B), but I decided not to continue with the show because some part of me thought, "This is a CW show.  It's not that important for me to keep watching."  After hearing from people I trust that the show had improved and gotten really good, I decided to binge on the 13-episode first season, and regretted giving up on it in the first place.

The 100 divides its story time between the teenage characters on Earth and the adults who remain on The Ark.  In the former section, the show bears some resemblance to Lost.  The group quickly discovers that they're not alone -- a mysterious group of people called The Grounders (this show's The Others) have somehow survived all of these years, and they don't seem too friendly.  But it's not just a human factor that the 100 have to deal with, there's also strange phenomena occurring all around, from a periodic toxic fog -- some might even call it a...smoke monster? -- to mutated two-headed animals roaming around.  In these earthbound sections, the show is about society trying to come together, and it effectively portrays the struggle of a group attempting to accomplish anything without rules or boundaries.  There's also a bit of angst and resentment from some in the group, who decide to take off the bracelets that monitor their vitals, in order to make the adults on The Ark who banished them think that they're dead.  Throughout the first season, the writers -- a staff that includes alumnae from prestigious shows like The Shield, Angel, Dollhouse, and Spartacus -- generate lots of tension from the fact that the teens on Earth have no idea what's going on up in The Ark, and vice versa.

In the portions of the show that take place in space, The 100 begins to take after Battlestar Galactica.  If the stuff on the ground is about society coming together, then the material in orbit provides a look at the last vestiges of a society that has fallen apart.  Because the oxygen supply is dwindling on The Ark (this show's version of BSG's final fleet), the council of leaders have to take desperate measures to conserve resources.  As a result, all crime is made punishable by death, people will have to be "floated" periodically (out into space, essentially being put to death as well) to keep the population manageable, and most citizens are left in the dark about the 100 being sent to Earth.  While the material with the teens can be leavened by the awe that the characters get from being in a wide open place they've only read about but never experienced, the scenes on The Ark don't shy away from the bleakness of the situation.  These are rough, dire circumstances, and the characters react appropriately.

So yes, The 100 cribs liberally from Lost and Battlestar Galactica in its early episodes -- and there's an element almost directly lifted from Firefly in the later episodes -- but it does so with confidence and aplomb.  It's obviously not as good as any of those influences, but it's still surprising that it's as good as it is.  And it goes to some dark places.  In just one season, it's already featured a child suicide, a brutal torture scene, and biological warfare.  But it also raises some surprisingly thought-provoking ideas along the way.  "Who we are and who need to be to survive aren't the same thing," a character says at one point, voicing the major theme of the show.  The 100 explores what it truly means to be a leader: the burdens they carry, the demons they have to live with, and the difficulty of choosing between what is right and what is good for the group.  Moral quandaries abound in the process.  Do I torture a prisoner to save my friend's life?  Do I let 1000+ people die to allow 700 to survive?  How do I retain my humanity in the face of great desperation?  And the show doesn't offer easy answers either.  One of the early crises of the show involves The Ark having to float 300 of their citizens to preserve more oxygen, unless they hear back from Earth and get confirmation that there are still people alive from the group they sent down.  The characters on Earth are able to send a signal to The Ark, but only after the deadline, and a section of people on the station still die because of it.

This being a CW show, you still have to sit through the obligatory romance storylines.  The love polygons don't have much spark, mostly due to wooden performances from some of the actors who play the teenage characters on Earth.  But it seems like the creators know this, and compensate by filling the adult cast with great sci-fi alums from Lost (Henry Ian Cusick), Battlestar Galactica (Alessandro Juliani, Kate Vernon), Person of Interest (Paige Turco), and Dollhouse (Dichen Lachman).  They also make up for it by having the teens be well-written, for the most part, so you pay less attention to the acting and more to the strong characterization.  The focus characters of the 100 all have clear motivations, and there's a substantial amount of conflict that comes from the moments when these various ideologies clash with one another.  Clarke (Eliza Taylor) and Bellamy (Bob Morley), the two main leaders, have particularly compelling arcs over the course of the season, as the responsibility of making the tough decisions inform the characters they grow into.

The first season does a good job of keeping the threats constant.  Some of it feels a little inorganic -- the way the council on The Ark continuously finds out that the amount of time they have left before the oxygen runs out was less than their calculations implied comes to mind -- but the dangers on Earth come along in natural and exciting ways.  It's well-paced from start to finish, climaxing with a finale that's chock full of major moments.  Its conclusion goes out on an exciting note that leaves me excited about the potential of season two.  The 100 might not seem like anything special at first, but it's got some strong characters, effectively bleak moments, and surprising plot turns.

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