The 100 begs to be placed into a time machine and shot back to 1996—in ways both good and terrible. With its often wooden acting and cheapo production values, The 100 recalls the mostly unwatchable spate of science-fiction shows that networks shoveled onto the air in the wake of The X-Files’ success. It’s not a show to watch if you want to be particularly challenged, and it’s constantly reminding viewers of things they likely already know. It’s possible to stop watching for 15 to 20 minutes, pick up again, and not really miss a beat, so intent is each episode on endlessly summarizing itself and the characters’ goals.
Yet it’s also a little sad that The 100 couldn’t exist in 1996, because the ideal way to watch it would have been to come across it in first-run syndication at 2 in the morning while nursing a drunken stupor—then immediately leaping on AOL to discuss the latest episode with the five other people who watch the show. It feels in many ways like a show unstuck in time. Like so many of those ’90s sci-fi shows, its obviously terrible elements distract from a core that’s surprisingly thoughtful and mature. In that way, it feels like the kind of show a handful of people will turn into their favorite show ever, then sing the praises of for the next several years whenever the subject of beloved canceled series comes up.
The dichotomy between the weak and compelling halves of The 100 is neatly summed up by the fact that, because this is a CW show, much of the show’s drama depends on which of the blandly attractive model types will sleep together on the program’s post-apocalyptic Earth surface. And yet when that’s going on, the adults (and, literally, they’re the show’s adult characters) are up in a giant space station—cobbled together from 12 smaller ones—called The Ark, trying to decide whether to intentionally murder 300 people to make sure everybody else will have enough oxygen. Yes, it’s yet another end-of-the-world show, but this one makes sure every silver lining comes complete with at least a dozen clouds. In one episode, a group of characters is able to communicate good news to another group much too late to stop something terrible from happening. Life in the world of The 100 is incredibly hot and attractive and filled with sexy sex—but it’s also nasty, brutish, and short.
Based on a book (and soon-to-be book series) by Kass Morgan, The 100 takes place in a world where humanity bombed itself into oblivion almost a century ago. A small number of survivors rode out the nuclear war in their space stations, then gradually found a way to come together, and the series takes as its protagonists their grandchildren (the adults) and great-grandchildren (the horny teenagers). The adults on The Ark struggle to assure the species’ survival as supplies run devastatingly low. Thus, they take a slim chance. One hundred juvenile delinquents, rather than being killed, will be sent down to the surface of the planet far below, to see if it has recovered from the nuclear holocaust. Once there, they are to set out for a former military outpost that should have enough supplies to last them for two years—provided the planet’s surface isn’t too irradiated.
As shepherded to the screen by Jason Rothenberg, there’s a surprising weight to the world of The 100. Sure, most of the tropes are dystopian clichés—only one child per family, resources running low, mutant animals, all crimes punishable by death, mysterious “others” watching everything that’s happening—but the scripts by Rothenberg and his writing staff (which includes Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain, alumnae of Angel, Dollhouse, and The Shield) palpably convey the desperation of those on The Ark and keep the goals for the kids on the Earth’s surface refreshingly small-scale. The first episode, for instance, is mostly about trying to cross a river, while later ones will be about tracking down a missing friend or trying to send a message to the sky once a radio is stolen. Flashbacks to earlier years onboard The Ark also convey the perils of growing up in such a surreal environment.
Unfortunately, the stuff down on Earth is significantly behind what’s going on up on The Ark. Where there’s an impressively grim demeanor to stories set there (and a cast that includes Henry Ian Cusick, Isaiah Washington, and Paige Turco to give them even more gravitas), the series feels like it’s rotating through an endless series of mystery show tropes in the on-Earth segments. Surprisingly for a CW show, however, the series is split about evenly between the two settings, and even the show’s largely uninteresting teen cast becomes more intriguing once the show delves into its Ark-set backstories. That’s not enough to improve the latest endless iteration of “two girls who like the same boy are forced to work together,” but it comes closer than expected.
There are warning signs all over The 100, like the series’ general lack of visual imagination or the fact that The CW sent out episodes five and six—but not episodes two, three, and four—for review. But there’s also something impressive about a series that’s willing to let its audience contemplate how horrifying it would be to live in a world where the oxygen is running out. The CW’s promotional campaign for The 100 seems most interested in its pretty people and its two-faced deer, but in between all of that, Rothenberg and company are sneaking in a surprisingly sophisticated look at a world filled with want.