We live in a golden age of nerdy live-action TV shows. Every night of the current TV season offers up at least one show (some days even have a variety to choose from) to geek out over the water cooler. (Do people still discuss television with coworkers at water coolers or has everyone jumped ship to just chatting online with strangers?) And yet one geek program that doesn’t seem to drum up as much chatter is The 100 on the CW. Are you turned off by the fact that The 100 is a CW series inspired by a brand new YA book series and filled with pretty young actresses and actors? Don’t be. It deserves more attention because, despite what its pedigree may suggest, it’s actually a damn good series.
If you haven’t been watching The 100 because it sounds like typical CW drivel, I won’t hold it against you. (If you were already watching it before reading this article, give yourself a high five.) I will, however, give you constructive examples of why it’s worth your time…without spoiling too much. Now that it’s on winter hiatus, there’s plenty of time to catch up on this addictive show before its sophomore season concludes. It returns at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, January 21, so you don’t even need to turn off your TV after (Green) Arrow is over! Even if your DVR is filled to the gills with other programs, you do yourself a disservice by not giving it a shot. So here are ten reasons why The 100 is the best show you’re not watching.
10. Remix Alchemy Makes Its Execution Much Better Than It Sounds
The 100 is set a future where an irradiated Earth was presumed dead by the residents of a giant jury-rigged international space station dubbed The Ark. After a near century of isolation, however, The Ark is rapidly running out of resources to keep its current and future generations alive. The solution is to send its one hundred juvenile delinquents (that’s where the title comes from) down to Earth as an expendable expeditionary team to check whether it’s habitable again. Once they’re released from space juvi, these rambunctious whippersnappers would rather throw a wild rumpus than help out the draconian codgers that imprisoned and exiled them. Complicating their mission and survival is the discovery that the Earth is now filled with mutant animals, acid fog, and surving tribes of human barbarians they nickname Grounders. So it’s the perfect mash-up of Lord of the Flies, Lost and Battlestar Galactica.
Although it sounds even more derivative than most of modern pop culture, showrunner Jason Rothenberg remixes those elements with the right level of alchemy to make it utterly captivating. By stealing from multiple sources (author Kass Morgan has been very upfront about her inspirations), the show feels fresher than if it drew from a single well. Not only does working with familiar concepts allow it to hit the ground running when it comes to world-building, it also lets the writers perfect or invert genre staples. The series is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The exact formula for making its execution work as well as it does is unclear, but the important point is that is does work. If shamelessly ripping off other works and sticking them in a blender is good enough for Star Wars and The Matrix, then The 100 doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel either.
9. It’s Just the Right Mix of Depressing And Uplifting
By their very nature, post-apocalyptic dystopian fictions tends to be very depressing; The Road, for example, defies you not to drink yourself into cirrhosis once you’ve finished it. Although The Hunger Games series is a commercial smash because of its wish fulfillment veneer, Mockingjay makes it clear that you don’t actually want to wear Katniss Everdeen’s quiver. The 100 is likewise grim … except when some hope creeps in. Despite its dreary premise, it manages to still feel like an exciting adventure yarn. As cheesy as it sounds, the show does have a message about teamwork. Things are at their worst when the Hundred, the Ark, and even the Grounders are infighting. Once the members of those groups learn to support each other they achieve results. If the separate factions ever decide to negotiate with each other the major problems of the series could potentially be solved (until the writers throw in some new conflicts to stave off cancellation). Rather than being tacked on like an after school PSA, this theme is organically woven into the show so its tone isn’t thrown off.
Of course, even when the characters get their acts together thanks to inspirational speeches that manage to feel earned, the universe can still render their efforts pointless. (For a great example, check out the episodes where the Ark population debates euthanizing 320 residents to conserve air.) The 100 has been delicately walking the tightrope between “everything will get even worse than you expect” and “we can turn this dystopia into a utopia.” The uncertainty of which extreme The 100 will ultimately favor keeps it from getting prematurely stale. That’s another potential source of gambling income beyond weekly dead pools.
8. Despite Its Constraints, It Looks Great
Given that it films primarily in the woods and recycled sets, you wouldn’t expect The 100 to look good. It has managed to turn its modest budget, however, into an asset. If you’ve ever been to British Columbia, you’ll know it has beautiful forests. If you haven’t, this show contains your full recommended weekly dose of lush Canadian wilderness footage. (Naturally, it stands in for post-apocalyptic US wilderness because nothing fictional is allowed to happen in Canada). Actually filming outdoors is much more effective than faking it, as demonstrated by the dodgy CGI mutant animals that pop up occasionally.
Location shooting also provides an excellent contrast to the scenes aboard the Ark’s seemingly repurposed Battlestar Galactica sets. It gives the Ark a lived-in and utilitarian feel that wouldn’t come across by designing something more unique. Reusing sets, props and costumes is the correct move for this show because humans were never supposed to live together in the Ark for 97 years. It’s a rare instance of not making everything bespoke actually helps the series because it’s a show about scavenger societies.
Fortunately, the series’ directors and cinematographers excel at making its main locations look interesting. My favorite shot thus far is in the first season finale, when Clarke is taken on a slow motion ride on a diprosopus horse. Director Dean White deserves all the Emmys (including the ones the show wasn’t even nominated for) based on that scene! It’s so haunting it needs be in all the fan-made music videos! I couldn’t find it in any, so shame upon you YouTubers. It does appear in the above video at 57 seconds in, but said video also spoils all the first year highlights, so watch at your own risk.
While we’re on the subject of things that are visually appealing, let’s talk about the cast. Despite all the dirt and blood caked on them, it’s still a ridiculously good looking CW cast that has someone for almost everyone to swoon over. Given that the network cast the gorgeous Katie Boland as a disfigured character on Reign, it’s a safe bet that even The 100‘s grotesque Reapers are really models under their makeup. You might as well watch it in your bunk.
7. Genre Show Veterans Anchor Its Solid Ensemble …
Geeks tend to be loyal to actors and actresses who frequently appear in genre projects. So it was a wise move on the CW’s part to not only cast talented actors in the adult roles but also ones with experience saying sci-fi and fantasy dialogue without losing their poker faces. This is quite a handy skill, as much of the program’s science sounds specious. (Seriously, you will end up punching a hole through your screen if you watch this expecting it to stand up to scientific scrutiny.)
Henry Ian Cusick as the anti-hero Councilor Marcus Kane probably has the most renown for playing Desmond on Lost. Paige Turco, who plays the intrepid Dr. Abby Griffin, deserves to be more famous for playing the second cinematic April O’Neil. The 100 is a better vehicle for Isaiah Washington (as the delightfully named Chancellor Thelonius Jaha) than the Bionic Woman reboot. Battlestar Galactica alumni Kate Vernon, Rekha Sharma, and Alessandro Juliani represent as a shady politician, an unscrupulous doctor, and pretty much Felix Gaeta again, respectively. Dichen Lachman’s post-Dollhouse career is well spent as a Grounder general. X-Men 2’s and (Green) Arrow’s Kelly Hu appears in the seemingly important role of Kane’s girlfriend who then mysteriously vanishes after the pilot. Come back, Kelly Hu!
6. And the Younger Actors Don’t Suck Either!
You may think that investing in so many genre veterans is just to distract you from the pretty young amateurs of the titular Hundred, but the younger cast members don’t suck either! Eliza Taylor carries the series as the levelheaded and optimistic moralist Clarke Griffin. Bob Morley is Bellamy Blake, her pragmatically rebellious rival for leadership of the Hundred. (Neither lets their native Aussie accent slip, which is great for aural consistency but unfortunate for fans of charming accents.) Marie Avrgeropoulos plays his sister, Octavia, who morphs from a literally sheltered ing?nue into an action heroine. Spunky Zero-G mechanic Raven Reyes is brought to life by Lindsey Morgan. Stoner Science Bros Jasper Jordan and Monty Green (Devon Bostick and Christopher Larkin) add some much-needed levity. The creepy dirtbag voted most likely to be sentenced to space juvi, John Murphy, is deftly portrayed by Richard Harmon.
I could go on for the rest of the cast, but you get the picture. The different generations of thespians mesh together well enough to convincingly depict this dystopian future. Who knew a CW show would ever be recommended based on its acting? They even managed a take without dying of laughter over the your new favorite non sequitur: “How long until chocolate cake turns into being hung upsidedown and drained for their blood?”
5. Character Arcs for All
“Survival isn’t who you are. It’s who you become.” Just as its tagline promises, The 100 does not shy away from the consequences of survival. That means plenty of dynamic character development in a world of moral grayscale, so its cast isn’t wasted. Kane has the best character arc, at least out of the adults. He starts off as a villain trying to undermine Chancellor Jaha at every turn. It’s later revealed that he’s not trying to usurp power for his own sake, but because he legitimately feels Jaha is too sentimental to make the tough choices that will preserve humanity. Eventually he gets a full redemption arc once he feels he’s gone too far even within the bounds of his legal authority, thus saving him from being as repugnant as Stannis “The Mannis” Baratheon. He also bucks the overuse of motivating daddy issues (The Lost Method) in favor of guilt over disappointing his mother (The Star-Lord Method), who happened to be the Space Pope of the Ark’s tree worshipping space religion.
The Hundred have plenty of growth of their own as they fend for themselves on the Earth. Bellamy positioned himself as the anarchist leader (oxymoron alert!) of the Hundred just to selfishly protect him and his illegally born sister from the Ark’s rigid laws, but grows to actively care for the welfare of his compatriots. Clarke begins as a Polyanna expecting to solve everything by appealing to everyone’s better judgment but winds up getting her hands dirty. She gets an epic level of PTSD paranoia in the sophomore season. Another character (identity redacted for spoilers) has to learn to cope with permanent nerve damage. In season two, the formerly laid-back pacifist Finn is so obsessed with rescuing Clarke he goes trigger happy. That particular development may be too drastic considering how deftly the show treats the acclimation of other characters but anything to make Finn less dull, right?
4. Shorter Seasons Equal Better Pacing
The 100 only had thirteen episodes and it made damn sure things got done in them. It was pretty much all killer no filler. It didn’t even waste any time on a title sequence. Unlike other shows trying to be the next Lost, The 100 learned not to test audiences’ patience by dragging out its core mysteries out for several seasons. It does have its own mysteries and cliffhangers, but they’re not overhyped and tend to be resolved within a few episodes. Unlike The Strain or Under the Dome, it delivered plenty of quality character beats and a complete introductory story arc. The 100 makes you feel fulfilled rather than toyed with.
Season two is set to run sixteen episodes. Even that is less than a typical season on American network TV. The second season has kept up its momentum so far, so three additional episodes shouldn’t be cause for alarm. At least it finally found room for a nifty title sequence starting with this year’s second episode. That’s a whole 7.5 minutes of screentime that doesn’t need to be filled with teen angst!
3. It’s Ridiculously Violent for Network Television
One downside to a world being populated with so many hormonal teenagers is that sometimes melodramatic love triangles feature as plot points. The good news is that this is outweighed by copious ultra-violence! Between the Hundred sent to Earth, a few thousand people on the Ark, and countless Grounders, there are usually a couple of onscreen deaths in each episode. This is a show that is not afraid to decimate its ensemble. The carnage is generally filmed well, especially the first season finale battle of the Hundred vs. the Grounders that was nearly as epic as the Battle of Blackwater Bay. If you like watching whiny teens get taken out by throwing axes to the forehead, this is the show for you.
While The 100 is graphically violently, note that so far it has avoided depicting any rapes. Whether you have a personal trigger warning or are just annoyed that it seems to be the default trauma reserved for females in gritty fiction, you don’t have to worry about it here. The 100 has been egalitarian about dishing out non-sexual violence to its women and men alike. If you do have any PTSD from being impaled in the chest and crucified to a tree as bait for mutant panthers, however, that may be grounds for skipping it.
2. Plenty of Compelling Female Roles
Hollywood is still struggling with the notion that women comprise about half of the Earth’s population. Most aren’t sexy lamps either. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see so many actresses on The 100 have meaty roles they can sink their teeth into. Not only does this program passed the low bar of the Bechdel Test, it also aces the Mako Mori Test. (The ensemble cast is distinctly multiethnic, but it’s trickier to gauge whether the show is sufficiently racially diverse without cross-referencing numerous statistics. There’s no confirmed LGBTQ representation yet though.) Clarke and her mother are essentially the protagonists of the series’ two main settings. The only current geeky show (besides Orphan Black) that does a better job of featuring an array of empowered women is The Legend of Korra, and Nickelodeon is doing just about everything to mismanage it to an early grave as if it’s an animated leper.
The 100’s writers mange to make its women flawed without making them unlikeable. Clarke makes plenty of decisions at the end of season one that sound philosophically correct but turn out to be objectively bad moves. Octavia’s passion for going native is hindered by her inexperience. Despite these realistic shortcomings, you still root for these women to overcome adversity. Meanwhile on (Green) Arrow, Laurel Lance’s continued ineptitude even on her official Heroine’s Journey continues to mark her as the irritatingly inept Goofus to her sister’s competent Gallant. The less said about Barbara on Gotham the better.
The show doesn’t go out of its way to make its men look inferior to its women as a shortcut. Instead its women are treated with equal respect, which means getting worthwhile characterization and stuff to do. Although the second season of Agents of SHIELD has vastly improved, it wasted Dichen Lachman as a nameless mute villager who gets tortured by a Nazi during WWII, gives birth to Skye (ahem, “Mary Sue Poots”) offscreen, and then gets gruesomely vivisected by the same Nazi decades later to give national treasure Kyle “Kwisatz Haderach” MacLachlan all the main pain. It failed to give her any distinct traits for viewers to connect with. (Wouldn’t Dichen Lachman have been the perfect Colleen Wing for their upcoming Netflix shows?) Lucy Lawless got a bit more to do as mercenary Isabelle Hartley before being killed at the end of her first episode to enrage new addition Lance “My Real Name Is Even More Badass” Hunter. You wouldn’t even realize her seemingly new throwaway character was supposed to be Victoria Hand’s ex-girlfriend from watching the show. Compare that with The 100, wherein Lachman gets plenty of dialogue and agency as one of the Grounders’ battlefield commanders named Anya. Imagine what they could do with Lucy Lawless!
If other programs treated their women as multifaceted people instead of solely as victims, sex objects, Mary Sues, tokens, or albatrosses around men’s necks, I wouldn’t need to commend The 100 for getting Feminism right.
1. The Moral Ambiguity Is Thick Enough to Eat With a Spoon
Most fans are disappointed by Constantine not being on HBO so Hellblazer’s amoral bastardry wouldn’t have to be diluted for mass consumption (again) by NBC. If The 100 is any indication, being made by HBO is not a prerequisite for making engagingly dark television. The 100’s bread and butter are situations where all the options are terrible. After all, the core premise is adults potentially sacrificing their moderately disobedient kids in the hopes of ensuring their non-lawbreaking kids’ futures. The chief reason the Grounders are waging war on the Ark’s explorers is that they justifiably view them as hostile invaders. Another faction introduced in season two further complicates things. The philosophical dilemmas raised by this program are enough to fuel an entire college course.
One of the best sequences of moral ambiguity happens in episode four after one of the Hundred is killed by a member of their own. Suspicion immediately falls upon Murphy as the resident sadist among them. As a laissez-faire leader, Bellamy decides not to intervene when a mob forms to lynch Murphy. Clarke objects to this capital punishment on principle but doesn’t offer any constructive alternatives to punish or rehabilitate the murderer. Murphy is saved at the last minute from being “floated” (the future colloquialism for being hanged or jettisoned out of an air lock) when the youngest and most mentally disturbed member of the Hundred confesses. Then both Bellamy and Clarke go out of their way to protect the murderess. Murphy is understandably enraged by the double standard that he was almost executed while the real criminal gets a pass because the group’s de facto leaders are attached to her. The episode ends without the characters coming to a consensus about how their fledgling society will handle further transgressions. Nobody is objectively right. The 100 showed more ethical complexity in its fourth episode than most shows get to by their fourth season. It strikes at both your intellect and emotions as if it has a metaphysical french fry fork from Nathan’s!
So kudos to The 100 for being so proficient at what other TV shows should already be doing by now. Now go marathon it.
You may remember Matthew Catania from such Daily Lists as
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