Even as it has evolved from The WB, The CW has often been shunned as a channel for teenaged girls, all love triangles, vampires, and rippling muscles. However, The CW has quietly assembled one of the most consistently great lineups on any channel. Shows like Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend get awards notice and Greg Berlanti’s DC shows — Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow — have earned passionate fanbases. Meanwhile, the sci-fi show The 100 is well on its way to being the best show on the network, and one of the best sci-fi shows in recent memory. While the show, now in its third season, may air on the same channel as The Vampire Diaries, it has more in common with Lost and Battlestar Galactica.
In the not-so-distant future, the world has been destroyed in a nuclear war, with the last remnants of humanity fleeing to a space station known as the Ark. To maintain order, all crimes are punishable by death, with kids under 18 being imprisoned instead of “floated.” However, despite all of the precautions and population control, the Ark is dying and everyone will be without oxygen in three months. In order to exert a little population control and test to see if Earth is livable again, leadership decides to send 100 juvenile delinquents to the ground to test its conditions. Our protagonist, Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor) and the rest of the rowdy teens soon discover that they aren’t alone. There are people who survived the radiation, and the warring clans are not happy about the intrusion.
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It takes a few episodes to get invested in the show, but a shocking bit of pragmatic violence is sure to suck viewers in by the end of episode three. Early on, the dialogue is a bit clunky and the characters a tad one dimensional: The hero, the nerd, the bad boy, the flirt, etc. However, show creator Jason Rothenberg and his team of writers turn those tropes on their heads in creative ways. No one is who they were when they first hit the ground, and while the changes can be drastic, they always feel organic and believable. The performances are top notch, as well. Eliza Taylor’s turn as Clarke has been incredible. She’s Katniss Everdeen with more empathy, resolve, and agency, and the show’s treatment of her bisexuality has been better than any other on television. (In a refreshing change of pace, no one is asking for a gold star for portraying the vast spectrum of sexuality on The 100.) Additionally, the Blake siblings, Bellamy (Bob Morley) and Octavia (Marie Avgeropoulos), have had compelling arcs since episode one, Octavia especially. A second child born into a culture that enforces a one-child-per-family rule, Octavia spent her life in hiding and has no love for her fellow residents of the Ark. Once she’s on the ground, she slowly finds her place amongst the Grounders, rising in their ranks and generally becoming a badass.
The most compelling aspect of the show, however, is the use of violence. Here, all actions have consequences. The show has the highest body count I’ve seen outside of Game of Thrones, but each death has genuine weight. Once they reach the ground, these characters have to make difficult decisions that no one should ever have to make, let alone a bunch of teenagers who have spent their entire lives on a space ship. By the end of the first season, everyone has made their way into the moral grey area. Not that it is any easier for people still on the Ark, as well. Paige Turco, Isaiah Washington, and Henry Ian Cusick round out an adult leadership charged with trying to save people in an impossible situation. Washington is especially good, and his journey into a sort of artificial intelligence cult has been a weird highlight of season three so far. There may even be as much mystery surrounding the City of Light as there was around Lost‘s hatch.
Yes, The 100 has some of the trappings of a CW show. Everyone still looks hot despite living in a radiation soaked forest, and there is a love triangle or two, but it would be a real shame to discount a series for these superficial elements. It’s hard to find sci-fi this well done and compelling. Rothenberg and crew have managed to expand the world with each season, raising the stakes and creating increasingly complex situations and inter-group politics. The first two seasons are on Netflix, tailor-made for your next binge. Despite the heightened premise, it always comes back to the characters and their relationships. Clarke’s journey is the soul of the show, and somehow that never gets lost in the constant warfare and struggle. By focusing on the relationships, as well as the action and usual sci-fi trappings, The 100 has become one of the most compelling shows around. It’ll pump you up, break your heart, and make you glad you don’t have to deal with starting over after the end of the world.