Monday, March 2, 2015

Please Watch "The 100", For Crying Out Loud

When The 100 premiered at midseason last year, it was a blip on the radar of most TV fans (myself included). And throughout most of its debut season, it's hard to argue it should have been anything more, despite an intriguing premise about a group of teenagers, raised in space, who are sent back down to attempt to survive on an Earth that has been thought to be uninhabitable. There's an admirable intensity to some of those early episodes ("Earth Kills" providing the first real sign of things to come), but the show's potential to be network television's answer to Battlestar Galactica was often undermined by elements undermining that potential: among them the addition of various moments of teen angst and a DOA love triangle to what was an otherwise stark survival tale. (To be clear: teen angst and love triangles rock. Plenty of shows do these things well. But it soon became clear that The 100 was not one of them.) Catching up between season one and season two, I almost jumped ship midway through. So fair warning to anyone planning on marathoning the show over the summer: there are patches early on where you may wonder how I can call this my favorite network drama of the 2014-15 TV season, and one of my five favorite shows of the season period. But that is exactly what it has become, and it deserves to be a blip no longer.

Relatively vague spoilers for season two (which airs its penultimate episode Wednesday) follow, but I will not go into deeply specific detail about any key plot points, so those who are not yet fans of one of the best science-fiction shows in years can read and decide whether or not it's worth their time.

Note: it is. It really is.

The 100 — Survival Horror 

With all due respect to Hannibal, The 100 is hands down the most viscerally intense and heart-pounding series on broadcast television right now. In addition to its powerful, BSG-esque moral dilemmas (more on those in a bit), the show has increasingly borrowed rather liberally from the horror genre: particularly from survival horror that relies on an unfamiliar environment (think The Descent) for much of its impact. One early season two episode, for example, involves two characters who are attempting to escape from an area in which they are being kept prisoner. Their flight is filled with dread, as they are first forced to resort to desperate means to camouflage themselves, then later find themselves trapped in a situation where there appears to be no way out. That they do get out is in this case—though not always, as The 100 has proven it's unafraid to kill characters off when the situation demands it—kind of a given, but some of the things that happen afterward are legitimate surprises, and illustrate just how much of a struggle surviving on an inhospitable Earth truly is.

This element is there in season one as well to a certain extent, but season two is where it really asserts itself. Most of the episodes feature at least one incredibly tense sequence in which characters struggle against the terrain, a threatening enemy, or both. The show's strong sense of visual style adds to that: it's one of several CW shows that doesn't get the credit it deserves in that department. No, it's not Mad Men-level cinematography, but techniques like point of view shots, effective use of on and offscreen space, and camera mobility are used elegantly to establish an unbroken sense of suspense. In short, The 100 is often filmed in a manner very similar to some of the best horror cinema of recent years. It isn't necessarily the kind of stuff that will give you nightmares (though some scenes might very well do just that), but it will definitely set you on edge while you're watching it, as it makes the constant fight or flight response required by these circumstances disarmingly palpable.

Dilemmas, Alliances, and Politics 

This is something that has been a strong element of the show from the get-go, and was responsible for many of season one's best moments. A debate among the teens regarding the torture of a Grounder prisoner was one of them, and perhaps the season's best episode involved the adults back in space struggling with decisions that needed to be made as they began to run out of oxygen. Season two takes that central question—the moral choices made in an effort to survive, and the psychological costs of those choices—and runs with it even further, in a way that equals the very best episodes of Battlestar Galactica. Many of those choices involve central character Clarke Griffin, whose struggle with just what it means to be a leader is perhaps the season's strongest character arc. Should a large number of people be sacrificed in order to preserve the opportunity to win an important battle? It's a call that she ends up having to make, and her eventual decision weigh on her over the remainder of the season. Likewise, the season's main antagonists—the Mountain Men—do unquestionably terrible things, but their reasons are perfectly understandable.

The complexities are not just moral; they are political. Season two greatly expands The 100's world, building its main arcs around several competing groups on the ground. None of these groups are given short shrift; the majority of the main characters (including Clarke) belong to the group of survivors who've come to the ground from space (often referred to as the Sky People), but as a tentative alliance is formed with the Grounders already living on Earth, Grounder leaders such as Lexa and Indra emerge as equally compelling figures. (Another great thing about The 100: the vast majority of its most awesome characters are women, with the dudes primarily relegated to supporting roles.) There's also plenty of political tension within the groups themselves, including two Sky People leaders offering competing perspectives about the proposed alliance, and many Grounders expressing displeasure with their leadership too. In short, there's a ton of stuff going on, and that's without even mentioning the various happenings taking place in the season's third main location. It's all incredibly well thought-out: a fully serialized arc that never once has felt like it's spinning its wheels, but has instead sustained its intensity throughout each of these first fourteen episodes.

Goodbye to Narrative Dead Weight 

Clearly, then, many of the things that make The 100 a great show were there early on. What has allowed it to become one of TV's best dramas is the awareness its writers have shown regarding the less compelling aspects of season one. Among these were several characters who just weren't as dynamic as the rest. In season two, those characters will soon trouble you no more. Not necessarily because they've been killed off, either: one of season two's great successes is allowing a dull villain from season one to embark on a journey that, while not exactly redemptive, causes him to become both more nuanced and a heck of a lot more fun to watch. Similarly, the more annoying romantic entanglements of season one are jettisoned fairly quickly. Romance remains, but it's now been replaced by a more naturalistic kind based on shared interests or mutual respect, rather than obligatory relationships that frequently felt like they belonged to a different show.

Hello Darkness, The 100's Friend

That's because . . . well, they basically did belong to a different show. The big problem with those season one romances (beyond the characters involved just generally having no chemistry) was that they injected a note of levity into a show where it didn't really belong. It sometimes almost felt as if the survival narrative hit pause briefly when two characters exchanged longing looks. Season two doesn't have that problem: any longing longs are now simultaneously accompanied by a sense of exhaustion, and the characters' heavy burdens follow them even when they're considering hooking up with someone. This is key: Battlestar Galactica (and I'm sorry to keep using that comparison, but it's true) was the last science-fiction drama to truly capture the weariness that sets in when every day is a struggle just to keep living. Plenty of shows with similarly grim premises have come and gone since, but The 100 is the first to really embrace the darkness consistently: not just in the horror/suspense sequences and moments of moral crisis, but in every single scene.

Yet that all-encompassing bleakness never makes the show a slog to watch, but rather propels it forward, thanks to how badly we're rooting for these characters to survive. This isn't one of the many self-consciously grim and ponderous antihero dramas that has sprung up in the wake of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. Rather, it's a grim tale of generally decent people under tremendous psychological pressure, and how that pressure changes them in irrevocable ways. At one point in the season's 13th episode (perhaps its best so far), one character struggles to understand the decision another has made, only to be reminded by the person she's talking to that they have made several equally brutal choices for the same reason: the alternative is worse. People don't generally do the wrong thing on this show; instead, it weighs the costs extracted from the soul even when you've made the best decision you possibly could have made in a given scenario. And it asks the question: how do you manage to keep going in spite of that?

Bisexual Representation

Lastly, there's the thing that happened in the most recent episode. This is a something of a spoiler, I suppose, which is why I saved it for near the end. (Duck out for the remainder of this paragraph, if you wish.) Recently, The 100 became the first network show I can recall to feature a bisexual character in the lead role, as Grounder leader Lexa confessed her feelings for Clarke and the pair kissed. The moment didn't go beyond that, but only because Clarke is dealing with a heck of a lot of other stuff right now: the death (by her hand, no less) of the guy she'd previously loved being the main thing. It was a fantastic scene that perfectly epitomizes the show's less tone-deaf approach to incorporating romance in season two: the two have been bonding all season, but it's the kind of bonding that came about only after Clarke was forced to kill Finn in order to secure the alliance. Getting back to the notion of burdens, it makes sense that this fact would hang over the potential start of something more between these two characters. And it also demonstrates how Clarke's sexuality is just one of the many elements shaping her as a person, which is just as it should be. (But dammit, Finn. Why must you still be in the way, even from beyond the grave? You really are the worst.)

Just when I thought this show couldn't make me love it more.

In short, if you're not watching The 100, you're missing out on one of the very best things on TV. With several of The CW's more popular shows stumbling time and time again throughout 2014-15, this (along with the almost as great Jane the Virgin) is a series that came out on fire in the fall and has only built itself into something even greater as it heads towards its end. It will be back, thankfully, but both its ratings and its place in current television discourse are nowhere near as high as they should be. Right now, there are but a handful of shows anywhere—network, cable, online, you name it—that are better. And two of them are ending this spring, while The 100 still feels like it has plenty more story to tell. So get on the bandwagon now and ensure that it gets the chance to do exactly that, while enjoying a show that's thrilling, complex, tonally uncompromising, and just took a huge step in terms of LGBTQ representation on network TV without asking for any applause (cough *Transparent* cough) for doing so. It may not be the near-perfect achievement that The Americans and Rectify are, but this is flat-out great television, and it's time for it to be widely acknowledged as such.

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