It's on the CW, there are a lot of young actors in the cast and it's a survival tale that draws freely from any number of post-apocalyptic and YA tropes. If any of those factors cause you to dismiss it, I laugh in your general direction.
"The 100" is awesome.
The show's first season (which is currently on Netflix) was surprisingly good, and as I've written, as soon as it got past various bits of setup, the drama went to some shocking places -- and those shocks did not smell of desperation or exploitation. They were smartly deployed.
The show's darkest developments, as bloody or calculating as they might be, merely capitalize on the show's survivalist premise. When "The 100" allows bad things to happen to its characters, who have arrived on Earth 100 years after a nuclear apocalypse, it makes it clear that it isn't going to shy away from the moral conundrums baked into its premise. The show's working philosophy might as well be: "Not everyone's going to survive -- get over it. But we are going to try like hell to interest you in the fate of these people."
Is the show perfect? Nope, but as I noted in this piece on the frenetic efforts of "State of Affairs" and "Gotham," a big factor my enjoyment of any show is the overall sense that the people in charge know what they want to do with it. If they have solid ideas regarding what the show is capable of and where it can go, and that confidence comes across on screen, I can forgive a lot. Will this show end up on my annual Top 10 list? No, but that is an insanely high bar to clear. Perhaps this is a more useful barometer of my interest: I watch episodes of "The 100" as soon as they hit my DVR. If I happened to be available when a new episode aired, I would try to watch it in real time, i.e., I would temporarily return to our collective pre-DVR apocalypse.
The thing is, the people making "The 100" know exactly what this show is and every week, it becomes more clear that they know what they want to do with it. The second season of "The 100," visually, morally and thematically, quietly builds on the strengths of Season 1.
(Sidebar: The CW has been incredibly smart in its hiring of directors. Its shows have among the lowest budgets of any broadcast network dramas, but these directors work goddamn miracles with what they've got, and that's in part because the crews are clearly very creative. Part of the reason I enjoy "Jane the Virgin," "The 100," "Supernatural," "Arrow" and "The Flash" is because they all have skilled and inventive directors. There are much, much more expensive dramas that aren't directed with the intelligence, economy and visual verve of these shows.)
In any event, you can tell a lot about a show by paying close attention to one of its "average" episodes -- an episode that isn't near the start or of the end of a season, one that doesn't function as a mid-season finale or a mythology-intensive installment. What does a drama do with one of its workaday installments? Does it get me more interested in the characters? What does it look like? Does it taper off or end strongly? Who gets screen time and why?
With those questions in mind, I want to mention a few things I really, really liked about last week's episode of "The 100." It was a treat, in large part because it wasn't a "special" episode of the show -- it just did a number of things well. It connected different elements of various stories in an efficient way, but it tied almost every one of those moments to fruitful character development. A lot of people were injured or died, but that only made me more intrigued to see what happens to the ones who lived. The episode simply worked well -- visually, ethically and dramatically, I enjoyed it.
Before I get to a list of five things I liked about last week's episode, I'll answer a question you may not have asked: Why do I spend so much time writing about and watching genre TV? Well, because, done right, genre shows are enjoyable and help illuminate the human condition, duh.
But here's another reason: My beloved "B-movie TV shows" can be forthright and progressive in ways that other shows aren't.
"The 100" does not dwell much on the ethnicity (nor the gender) of its characters, but it is a quite diverse cast. Lindsey Morgan, who plays the recently injured engineer Raven, is partly of Hispanic descent. And so, as it stands now, one of the core characters on "The 100" is a partially paralyzed woman of color who happens to be a gifted and respected mechanic-engineer. And "The 100" treats this development as no big deal, which is as it should be.
Your move, titans of cable drama.
All right, from this point on, I'm going to talk specifics about the episode, so be aware of that if you have not seen it. Here are five things I really liked about "Many Happy Returns":
- The desert scenes were beautiful. The Jaha story line had a very "Mad Max" look, but those scenes showed a fantastic level of detail in both the design of the tent and the costumes of its occupants. This location and those characters instantly felt like real people, in part because their world had such tactile, textural detail. Director P.J. Pesce did a fine job with the whole episode, but I especially loved the silhouettes of Jaha and Zoran against the sand. That busted umbrella was just perfect.
- The cliffside scenes were wonderfully pulse-pounding -- and effective on a character level. Pesce did a fine job of conveying the danger the characters were in and made me sit on the edge of my seat (though I was pretty sure Bellamy was not going to die). With characteristic efficiency, the sequence also made me buy more deeply into a few character's emotional states: I felt Finn's sense of urgency, I understood Bellamy's conflicted position and, God help me, I think I began to like Murphy? He didn't lose his snarkiness, but he helped out when he was needed; I have to respect that. And then cut to Octavia being awesome, because of course. (Sidebar: If I like Murphy, what will I have to complain about? Give me a minute, I'm going to step away to have a miniature existential crisis.)
- That brutal ending. I enjoyed Clarke and Anya's version of "Midnight Run," even though it looked exhausting and painful. Both of them were justified in their brutality toward each other, but I never get the sense that "The 100" -- or these characters -- believe in violence for its own sake. It's always used for an end that is justifiable to individual characters (and half the show is about exploring the differences of opinion that arise regarding the various uses of violence). In any event, I loved Clarke's surprise ambush with the sedative dart (I'd forgotten she had that, as I was meant to). And I was weirdly cheered that the show ended on such a nightmarish note -- after Clarke and Anya patched things up, Anya was killed, and with her death, Clarke lost any hope of a peaceful alliance with Anya's people. This is a hard, harsh world, and if "The 100" started dialing back on the challenges for the characters, what would be the point?
- Raven's story was handled in a subtle and excellent way. Watching her try to scale that tower was heartbreaking, but "The 100" did not overload her tale with pathos: It treated her new disability and her response to it with restraint and respect. Raven still hides her inner turmoil with wisecracks; she's still stubborn and goal-oriented. But she's coming to terms with who she is now, and her scenes of adjustment were handled with welcome nuance (and hats off to Lindsey Morgan for making Raven's resilience so affecting). I like Raven's rapport with her new engineer buddy -- it's always a good sign when minor characters have at least a few layers and dimensions to them. (I enjoyed their banter about mechanics vs. engineers, and I must add that I consider Raven both, considering how skilled she is at both designing and building vital tech.)
- There were no "strong female characters": There were just a lot of women. Two of my favorite essays of all time are "Why 'Strong Female Characters' are bad for women" and this brilliant post on the condescending poverty of that phrase by Sophia McDougall. I become alarmed when I hear a creative type say a show has a "strong female character," because it often means that a show will have a token female character or two, but the treatment of those characters won't ring true in an ongoing, meaningful way. The "strong female character" will get some alleged character development, but too often these women end up being marginalized, or they'll end up being too strong -- or too flawed -- to be believable. Half the problem is the relative lack of women on many dramas, but hoo boy, "The 100" doesn't have that problem. Just for starters, there's Clarke, Octavia, Raven, Abigail, Anya (RIP) and Indra -- and those are just the most prominent female characters. There are so many women on this show that they get to be all kinds of things. They often make mistakes, they usually have differing agendas and their emotional states and goals reflect their individual situations and aspirations. For example, Clarke and Anya are not carbon copies of each other, and Octavia is not a copy of either of those women. The base camp's head of security? A woman, one who sometimes clashes with other characters and yet has the loyalty of her officers. Even the smaller roles, like that of Zoran's mother, have enough heft and detail to make them interesting. This is a show with a lot of characters -- male and female -- worth exploring further. On top of that, it's frankly a relief to see that token female characters aren't being forced to embody all of womankind and/or transmit one-dimensional ideas about "strength." To be clear, all different kinds of shows make these kinds of mistakes, even genre ones. This one never has.
"The 100" airs Wednesday at 9:00 p.m. ET on the CW.