TV: The 100 (Season 1)

On paper, this doesn’t look like my kind of science fiction show: a YA, Lord of the Flies dystopia full of beautiful teenagers? But hang in there, because The 100 transcends this flimsy first impression, developing into a stirring survival tale full of sympathetic characters, organic conflict, and compelling moral dilemmas.

A hundred years after the surface of the Earth has been irradiated by nuclear war, humanity’s last survivors now live on the Ark, an orbital space station. But the Ark is slowly failing, forcing its leaders, lead by Chancellor Thelonious Jaha (Isaiah Washington), to make tough decisions. In the orbital colony, adult crimes are punishable by death, but teenaged criminals are merely imprisoned. With the Ark reaching a crisis point, Jaha sends one hundred of these young criminals to the surface, both to conserve Ark resources and to test the surface for habitability. The dropship lands in a remote, wooded area of the northeastern US, where the survivors rally under the contentious leadership of Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor) and Bellamy Blake (Bob Morley), who work to organize the camp against unexpected outside threats. Meanwhile, on the Ark, Jaha and his cohorts, including Dr. Abigail Griffin (Paige Turco) and Marcus Kane (Henry Ian Cusick), struggle to maintain contact with the ground and keep the Ark’s citizens alive.

Yes, The 100 deploys some hand-wavey science and its cast is almost preternaturally gorgeous. This is network TV, and it is The CW. But once you look beyond those trappings, what remains is a surprisingly compelling SF drama. The obvious comparables are Battlestar Galactica and Lost, two similar genre survival shows that capitalize on immediate high-stakes urgency. But unlike either of those shows, The 100 is structurally sure-handed and totally in control of its messaging. The writers do a fantastic job creating believable conflict that grows organically out of each new development. The heroes disagree, but not arbitrarily; they argue from different, often equally sympathetic viewpoints that grow out of the very difficult, “Cold Equations”-like choices the characters face. Perhaps most refreshingly, the show’s gender and racial politics are quietly, smartly even-handed. The cast is diverse, and women figure as prominently in the decision-making as men, if not moreso. Finally, the show looks great, leveraging its limited budget to the best advantage. The special effects are good, and the action sequences are surprisingly epic and gripping.

The 100 is thematically rich SF and confident television story-telling, particularly refreshing for how conscious it is of the signals it’s sending. A much better show than I was anticipating; consider me onboard for season two!

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