Saturday, March 14, 2015

Too Much TV: THE 100 (2014-present)

Superhero fans who tuned into the CW network, first to watch Smallville and now to watch Arrow and Flash, learned over time that for their favorite shows to survive, apparently they had to conform to a so-called CW formula and become stereotypical CW shows. This entailed catering to the female gaze with shots of shirtless men and to the (presumably) female sensibility with soap-operaesque elements like romantic triangles and an unforgiving attitude toward keeping secrets. These had to be permanent parts of the program, comic book fans conceded with different degrees of grudging, if the superhero shows were to survive. What, then, to make of The 100, which flips this assumption on its head? The CW's postapocalyptic drama established its network bona fides early on but quickly went on to become almost the antithesis of a CW show. It remains one in the formulaic sense only insofar as the protagonists are young people who would be deemed pretty when they aren't covered in mud, blood or war paint. It has gone so far from the formula or stereotype that when we did get a sex scene near the end of the second season -- the finale aired March 11 -- it was jarring because that sort of thing hadn't happened on The 100 for a long time. Meanwhile, the show's growing fandom deemed it The CW's answer to Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. The most fanatical dare compare it favorably to those pantheon shows. I can't judge, but there's certainly a similarity in tone that makes 100 an outlier on the CW schedule and most likely --since I don't watch the entire schedule -- its best show.

The 100 (fwiw, it's pronounced "the hundred," not "the one hundred") is historically part of the YA-dystopia trend for which The Hunger Games set the tone. Jason Rothenberg based the show with progressive looseness on a novel by Kass Morgan, who has written a sequel since the show debuted in which at least one character appears whom the show has killed. The situation is that a cluster of space stations has preserved human civilization for almost a century since a nuclear war on the surface of Earth. The "Ark's" oxygen systems are beginning to fail; soon there won't be enough air for all the people on board. While some of the political leadership considers drastic steps to save oxygen by killing people, an alternative plan develops to test whether the surface is once more habitable. Since no one's that certain about it, the idea is to send 100 expendable people -- juvenile offenders who would have been killed under the Ark's draconian justice system -- to Earth as canaries in the proverbial mineshaft. The plan has the virtue of getting 100 sets of lungs off the Ark no matter how the kids' exploration of Earth turns out. Our main character is Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor), who becomes a de facto leader of the kids on the ground by virtue of her tie to Abby (Paige Turco), a doctor and political leader who's a true believer in the project. They want to prove that the planet is habitable in order to get everyone on the ground before more are killed in the Ark's hysterical political environment. On the Ark, Abby's main antagonist is Marcus Kane (Henry Ian Cusick), a control freak who sometimes seems overeager to reduce the surplus population. On the ground, Clarke's antagonist proves to be Bellamy Blake (Bob Morley), who was condemned for harboring a secret sister (Octavia, played by Marie Avgeropoulos) in defiance of the Ark's one-child policy. While Clarke and her allies want to establish order, Bellamy sees the situation as an opportunity to break free from adult constraints, the kids becoming a law unto themselves.

Obviously the earth is habitable once more or else there wouldn't be much of a show. In fact, it's been habitable for quite a while, since the kids soon discover people (as well as various mutated monsters) who've been living in a new tribal society for generations. These "grounders" are hostile to the intruders, but an outsider among them, Lincoln (Ricky Whittle) befriends Octavia (after initially kidnapping her) and tries to act as an intermediary between his people and the "Sky people." Many grounders speak fluent 21st century American English but also lapse into their own recently-evolved patois; it's a rare element of comic relief when you can make out the slang origins of the tribal tongue while subtitles make their meaning clear to viewers. But there was little funny about the contacts of grounders and sky people in the first season, which climaxed with a mass attack which the 100 (actually a good deal less by then) repelled by igniting rocket fuel and killing hundreds of grounders.

In the post-battle confusion Clarke and others on both sides were captured by a third force and imprisoned on Mount Weather, where people went underground at the time of the war and preserved as much of civilization and technology as they could. The "mountain men" remain very susceptible to the residual radiation on the surface but dream of walking in the sunlight once more. Their scientists have experimented on grounders, hoping to extract some key to immunity from radiation. The sky people make even more promising subjects. The second season featured (without overstating) parallel generational struggles. In the mountain, President Dante Wallace (Raymond J. Berry) is overthrown by his son Cage (Johnny Whitworth) because he's reluctant to adopt Cage's emergency plan to extract the captive sky-people's bone marrow without their consent and at the likely cost of their lives. Once Clarke escapes from the mountain, she struggles to reassert her hard-won authority against her own mother, who has reached the surface with many other Arkers in escape pods. Discovering that Mt. Weather has many grounders imprisoned for experimentation, while others are turned into drug-addicted Reapers who hunt more grounders, and having escaped with her onetime enemy, the grounder chieftain Anya (Dichen Lachman), Clarke hopes to forge an alliance with the grounders to storm the mountain and liberate all its prisoners. With major complications along the way, the season builds toward an epic siege of Mt. Weather that turns under increasingly desperate circumstances into a war of extermination.

The 100 has earned a reputation, not to mention comparisons with the acclaimed shows mentioned earlier, as a program that goes there, that doesn't find the easy out of bad situations that would let characters keep their consciences clear. Clarke has to get her hands, and often the rest of her, both literally and figuratively dirty as she learns to be a leader in an unliberal world. It's also a show where, if anything can go wrong, it probably will. Clarke's idea of an alliance is almost aborted at the beginning, for instance, when newly placed Ark guards at her old camp shoot down Anya, mistaking both her and Clarke for hostiles. She has to steel herself to be ruthless, most recently under the mentorship of Lexa (Alycia Debnam Carey), the grounder Commander chosen Dalai Lama style to fit the show's pattern of powerful young women. Clarke has had to personally execute the man she loves in order to keep the peace. She has had to join Lexa in a conspiracy of silence that condemned dozens of their peoples to violent death Coventry style rather than betray to Mt. Weather by evacuating them from the target of a missile attack that they have an infiltrator inside the mountain. Most recently she has had to decide whether to kill all the denizens of Mt. Weather, including children, by flooding the complex with surface radiation in order to save her own people from death by bone-marrow extraction. That decision comes after she shot a captive Dante Wallace dead in an attempt to intimidate Cage into surrender, and that decision comes after Lexa taught her a final lesson in ruthless leadership by making a separate peace with the mountain, getting her people back while leaving the sky people to die. And for what it's worth, that comes after Lexa, who had outed herself as lesbian in an earlier episode, seduced Clarke and received no worse rebuff than that Clarke, very understandably, wasn't ready yet. All these experiences weigh heavily on our heroine, but Eliza Taylor bears the burden heroically, making Clarke one of the strongest heroines on TV.

While Clarke has an epic learning curve to climb, what really elevates The 100 is the way the show has let other characters evolve past our first impressions. Remember those antagonistic males from the early episodes? Marcus Kane has grown compassionately self-critical since then, realizing that he'd condemned people who probably didn't have to die, and has emerged as a voice of reason on the series. At the extreme moment of this week's season finale, while a chained captive in the mountain, he promises to get his people to donate bone marrow voluntarily (which was something like Dante Wallace's original idea) if Cage will only free them. Marcus has also stood up for Clarke against Abby, who is too often tempted to see the kids' leader as her little girl gone morally astray. Meanwhile, Bellamy (who is Clarke's love interest in the books) quickly developed a conscience and a sense of responsibility not just for his sister but for the rest of the kids. Most recently he's been the Die Hard style infiltrator inside Mt. Weather and the sky person most hopeful of sparing the mountain's innocent kids come the reckoning. In that time Bob Morley has developed the character impressively into a laconic all-business action hero. Bellamy's sister Octavia has gone native more than any of the original 100, thanks to her love of Lincoln, and has transformed from one of the most helpless characters into a savagely elegant warrior. Jasper Jordan (Devon Bostick), almost comically hapless in the first season, became a heroically wrathful figure as he emerged as the leader of the captives in the mountain after Clarke's escape. Most unexpectedly, perhaps the most-hated character of the first season, the murderous traitor John Murphy (Richard Harmon) has become almost an audience favorite as he flinches from the more unfathomably vicious behavior of supposed good guys but retains a sardonic to-hell-with-everything attitude. He'll figure more prominently next season as the sole surviving companion of Theolonius Jaha (Isiah Washington), the former Ark leader and last man to escape to Earth who led a mostly doomed quest to find a fabled City of Light and most likely met the Season Three big bad instead.

If Jaha has seemed to go mad during his quest, he isn't the worst case of a good guy gone bad. In fact, it's while Murphy watched with perhaps more shock than horror that Finn Collins (Thomas McDonell), Clarke's boyfriend (but also the beloved of the kids' late-arriving tech whiz Raven Reyes [Lindsey Morgan]), believing Clarke a captive of the grounders early in the second season, hysterically massacred a bunch of frightened villagers, including children. Finn had been the voice of peace and reason almost ad nauseum throughout the first season, but his second-season arc (culminating in the execution scene I mentioned above) showed that while the ordeal of survival might mature some people, or even wisen up elders, it can also break good people or drive them mad. Finn's death was also a major milestone for The 100 because it decisively decoupled the series from the sort of teen-drama storylines that supposedly defined  CW programming. Not until Raven took a breather to get it on with a new boyfriend, apparently to cater to shippers who wanted to see more of the latter character, was there anything like romance on the show, unless you count Lexa's kiss of Clarke as something more than a political maneuver or a publicity stunt by the producers. To borrow the spiel from Arrow, The 100 had become something else. It's The CW's most uncompromising genre show, one that genre fans can watch without apology or embarrassment, and with maybe one exception that you'll learn of shortly, it's the best current series I watch, if not one of the best shows running. It'll be back this fall for a third season with its players increasingly scattered across a world full of menaces, as we learned in the latest cliffhanger, still waiting to be discovered.

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