It’s easy to pass judgment on The 100 prematurely. The CW (though not as lauded as, say, Emmy darlings HBO, Showtime, and now Netflix) has delivered plenty of great series, though in the network’s genre-heavy slate, The 100 can at first seem like merely a knock off of Divergent or The Hunger Games. It does have an attractive young case who find themselves in post-apocalyptic conditions, and it is adapted from a young-adult novel very few have heard of. And yet, it is also a deeply thoughtful, surprising, and an extremely brutal series. If the pilot doesn’t leave you at least intrigued, give it five episodes. The 100 may have a shaky start, but it grows by leaps and bounds quickly. You’ll be rewarded for sticking with it.
As one of TV’s greatest underrated series, genre or otherwise, The 100 tackles the philosophical conflicts of a post-apocalyptic society. What are the basic laws a civilized society needs? Is there such a thing as “good” and “evil” if the “villains” are trying to make the best decisions based on the hands they were dealt? Is “goodness,” in the Biblical “do unto others” sense, a “good” thing, if being good gets you and your people killed? Does doing the opposite of the “right” choice make you a bad person? These are not the kinds of questions usually broached in such a series, but, much as a mother might coat her toddler’s broccoli with cheese, The 100 makes these questions easier to digest through a mix of character-driven stories … and a smokin’ hot cast.
The specifics are this: the future Earth of The 100 has endured a nuclear apocalypse that left the surface scorched with deadly radiation. A large portion of humanity, thought to be the last survivors, escaped to live on The Ark, a space station spliced together from others that orbited the Earth. Generations have passed, but the hope to return home one day when the radiation dissipates remains alive. The problem is The Ark is dying. As oxygen levels dwindle and civilians are executed to ensure there’s enough life support for the majority, the Elders (The Ark’s governmental body) fear they won’t last until the predicted date of return.
In a last hope for survival, The Ark sends a group of 100 kids, all of whom are under the age of 18, down to Earth to see if it’s habitable. If yes, humanity can return home. If not, at least no essential personnel were offed!
You might be thinking why a society would send their kids to die, and how convenient this is to justify a cast of 20-30-somethings playing high school kids in a sci-fi setting. On The Ark, where food, water, and oxygen are more precious than ever, all crime, no matter how benign or severe, is punishable by death. But if you’re under 18, just like in our modern society, the offense is less harsh. These kids are The Ark’s only convicted criminals.
And that’s where we start with The 100, with these kids traveling to Earth, forming their own society, and surviving the threats that await them on their own. What follows is a show so unexpected and thought-provoking that you’re simultaneously recovering from watching a whole group of innocent families radiated to death, and contemplating what it really means to be human.
The 100’s weaknesses, when compared to films of a similar nature, actually work to its advantage. While, for example, The Scorch Trials had a budget of $61 million, it failed to earn the same critical and box office acclaim as The Maze Runner. Meanwhile, The 100, restrained by a TV show’s budget, doesn’t rely on flashy sci-fi CG. Yes, there are a mutated animals roaming around, as well as an acid fog that occasionally pops up, but the show is ultimately dedicated to character development and the story it’s telling, which is why it works so well.
Even the action and gore — and, yes, there is often gore — aren’t wasted, and serve to further develop the larger themes. While Season 1 was all about The Sky People (those from The Ark) vs. The Grounders (those who miraculously survived on the ground), Season 2 introduced another group of who can never step outside, since they cannot breathe unfiltered air or they will die an excruciating death from radiation. When they meet The 100, they reach a crossroads: do they or do they not experiment on these kids — which involves cringe-worthy scenes of blood and un-sedated bone marrow extractions — if the experimentation means they too can adapt to the harsh conditions? And do you hate them in those jaw-dropping moments, or would you do the same in their position?
The show’s characters have to make the most difficult decisions imaginable, and their youth makes the story even more compelling. Most of these kids are on the cusp of adulthood, and — at the risk of sounding like a meme — their struggle couldn’t be more real, as they try to figure out who they are and what they want in life. As we move ahead into Season 3, the cast and crew are teasing a story arc that will expand these conflicts to include all of humanity. The stakes couldn’t higher, and it’s clear after last season that no one is safe. But it’s also the natural progression for a show that’s been an exemplary piece of science-fiction since its beginning.
The 100 Seasons 1 & 2 are currently streaming on Netflix. Season 3 premieres on The CW on Thursday, January 21st, at 9 p.m. EST.