Thursday, June 18, 2015

Recommended: The 100

A bit of Lost, a large helping of Lord of the Flies, then sprinkle in some Lockout: these are the ingredients of CW’s surprise hit, The 100. I guess I was guaranteed to watch this program no matter what – for one thing, I have a life-long love of sci-fi in any form, be it in a novel, televised, or on film. For another, many aspects here are reminiscent of the first Fallout game, for which I clearly have a vast, abiding affection.

But, as with most CW shows, I approached it warily; this series had to work to earn my respect and trust, or else I’d stop watching by the fourth episode and never look back. Instead, I was confused at how The 100's makers crafted a story so multifaceted and entertaining that I was hooked. Quality is the skepticism-killer, after all...

What we have here is a case of love at first watch, and it’s easy to see why. After a world-ending nuclear war, humankind only survives through the descendants of multinational astronauts. Aboard the Ark, a mega-station of conjoined ships, our civilization waits for the aftereffects of the nuclear holocaust to fade away so they can return. Due to limited resources, however, all crimes are punishable by being blown out of an airlock; only offenders under 18 are spared, forced to stay in space-jail until reassessment at the age of majority.

In the future, a girl's diary/poems will include etchings and a CGI PowerPoint presentation.

The series’ lead, Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor), is one of those teens. This beautiful, smart pre-med was tossed into jail because she knew too much – her dad realized that the Ark couldn’t support life for much longer, and his desire to inform the public resulted in his death as well as Clarke’s incarceration. But, with resources dwindling even more quickly, the Ark’s Chancellor, Jaha (Isiah Washington), has decided on a (semi-)risky move: send their 100 teenaged prisoners to Earth to see if the planet is habitable, one century ahead of when it should be safe.

This is how Ms. Griffin finds herself surrounded by strangers, strapped into a seat, as Jaha’s recorded message explains their purpose and their goal. These 100 kids must see if they can live, then access the real-life fallout shelter called Mt. Weather for the food and supplies that the 3000-ish people above them will need to repopulate the Earth.

But nothing goes to plan. Two prisoners undo their seatbelts and, like an airplane in flight, those unsecured humans ricochet off the walls and damage vital parts of the ship. Once these space-kids touch down, they are awestruck by the feeling of natural wind and the smell of nature – but they also see a deer with two faces growing out of its head.

Next, they realize that the systems that were supposed to help them endure - including communications – are dead. And then, after a little exploration, they receive a terrifying sign that they are not alone or entirely welcome on Terra Firma. This new Earth is neither familiar nor safe, and our protagonists will have to work their asses off to stay alive.

I was an early adopter of The 100 (so rare for me and the CW), and I’ve never doubted my choice for an instant. In fact, its second season concluded about a month ago, and it only made a stronger case for why people should follow this series. This show consistently makes bold, clever writing choices that work from a character perspective, in addition to providing neat material for the heavily-serialized plotlines.

Similarly, the cast starts out strong enough, only growing all the more admirable over time. You'd expect a bit of a sophomore slump, but there’s barely a hint of that here – as with many fine programs, there are just the occasional developments that don’t work as well as the writers thought...

Like Lost (and BSG, for that matter), we have a large cast that is packed with engaging and interesting characters. The youngsters of the Ark are like latchkey children: since they don't get out much, they got to read a lot. Their existence was naturally limited to the interior walls or the immediate exterior of the space station, and so several of these miscreants received an excellent education.

Clarke, as the daughter of a doctor and a scientist, is even more educated than most. While her intelligence makes sense in light of her background, she has a surprisingly take-charge attitude. She doesn't seem like a nitpicky jerk or a control freak, but she speaks up stridently when catastrophe is on the horizon. Naturally, Griffin is even more motivated because she knows the Ark's political secrets, and has suffered for it. Her character wins you over with her nearly-absurd degree of bravery, and her ability to never panic...

You won't see it here, but Lexa has intriguing ideas about eye makeup.

Bellamy Blake (Bob Morley) is, often, the ostensible teenaged co-lead, and a sort of the dark reflection of Clarke. He leads because he wants to control everything, while Ms. Griffin leads because she wants everyone to survive. He practices a sort of populism reminiscent of Julius Caesar's tricks - full of promises and showy gifts - whereas Clarke doesn't want to bribe anyone into following her.

Ultimately, Bellamy's behavior has deeper motivations than avarice, but I don't need to divulge any of that. The role that he immediately establishes among the 100 is powerful, and the show handles his conflict with Clarke in a twisty, ambiguous, mature fashion. As much nerve as Bellamy displays, you can see many moments where he's weighing how far he can push things - and I love that the writing includes this, as well as that Morley conveys it neatly and not through overt dialogue.

Finn Collins (Thomas McDonell) rides the line between this pair. He's not afraid to get into fights, but the only childish motivations he is driven by are a love of adventure and a willingness to stick up for people that are unfairly set-upon. He has no problem placing himself on the front line of danger or exploration, yet without a need to be domineering towards others. As such, his affinity for Clarke is tempered by the fact that, under other circumstances, he might do a lot of what Blake does. And he, like only a few others, was sent to space prison because of love...

Clarke, Finn, and Wells make for one hell of a trio, but there's lots of those here.

Marie Avgeropoulos gets the most poignant (and, ultimately, a very conflicted) arc as Octavia Blake. Protected by her brother, and lusted after by others for her good looks, Octavia is a wonderfully-unique character. Her only crime was being born, exceeding the space station’s one child per family limit.

On Earth, Octavia gets the freedom that she could never receive on the Ark – and yet her storylines are often defined by the men around her. It’s as frustrating to watch her brother, as well as her fellow “sky-people,” try to fence her in, as it is so pleasing to see her surpass all of that to forge her own path. It would mean a lot more if two-thirds of her arc weren’t tied to males, but watching what she does with it is a thing of beauty, in the end.

And Richard Harmon has the great/unenviable task of portraying John Murphy – the darkest figure amongst all of these outcasts. Vengeful, petty, and more than a bit of a bully, Murphy offends everyone around him. Driven by little more than anger and unhappiness, John’s aggressive manner combines with his thuggish personality to always create the potential for disaster. If nothing else, his voice contributes to that of his fellow survivors – to sow chaos, not to foster a greater chance at staying alive. You'll enjoy hating Murphy, who seems like one of the least lovable people on TV.

Dr. Griffin may be impressive, but Raven Reyes is insuperable.

My personal favorite, of course, is Lindsey Morgan as Raven Reyes. Appearing early in the first season, Raven is a beautiful engineer whose smarts are belied by her impulsive, ballsy, get-things-done attitude. She is one of the most proactive and loyal players in this series, someone who would follow the demands of her heart even at extreme risk to her own safety. I won’t spoil her storyline any more than I have the rest of the cast, but the best description I can give is that if you were in trouble on this show, Raven is the one person that you'd want to be focused on rescuing you. My only complaint is that she doesn’t have a larger role in season 2.

And, man, the additional cast members just keep on coming. Christopher Larkin is Monty Green, a geek who is best friends with fellow-nerd Jasper Jordan (played by Devon Bostick). They both receive very limited attention at the start, but you get plenty of reasons to like and get a handle on each of them. They add an element of intelligence and immaturity that is otherwise seldom present in this program.

Rounding out the teens is Eli Goree as Wells Jaha, which is sort of a sucky role name. He does nice work while saddled with one of the most thankless roles on the show: the over-responsible teenager who's also the boss' son. Even worse, his frequent flashes of character - courage, wit, and intellect - are largely undermined by the fact that he spends the first two episodes constantly apologizing to Clarke. He has his own secrets, for sure, but he's all about his feelings.

Yup, Octavia gets to be pretty and rebelliously gutsy, then a hit pop song plays. Ugh.

Finally, we come to Ricky Whittle. He is just great as Lincoln, a mysterious figure that the 100 cannot comprehend, much less reliably deal with. He's used very sparingly, but he always make a very big, if ambiguous/uncertain, impression. Really, his work here is so strong that I'd love him to be in every episode going forward. This alpha-male (with a heart?!) tackles scary terrain boldly, but not stupidly.

On the more mature side of things, we have the adults still in orbit, starting with Henry Ian Cusick as Councilor Marcus Kane. Kane is the head of security, a ruthless man who adheres to the rules so strictly that it might get everyone killed. When he's not type-A-ing it up, there are more layers to him - and thank god for that, because Cusick's work as Desmond on Lost was just magnificent. He makes for a complicated antagonist, especially once the debates become less black-and-white for him.

Wow... Lost much?

Paige Turco plays Dr. Abigail Griffin, the mother of the lead. Pretty, confident, and hardcore about her beliefs, it's a wonder Dr. Griffin wasn't the Ark's chancellor in the first place. I love the actress, and I like a lot of things about her role, but her work in season two suggests that the writers frequently lose their sense of who her character is supposed to be. It took a while, but I gradually realized that she shifts from one position to another too strongly and too quickly, and I wish the show-runners would sort that out as soon as possible.

Isaiah Washington is excellent in the role of Chancellor Thelonious Jaha. He has this incredible gravitas that is appropriate to his dire situation, and yet still allows enough elements of his character to come through - so you realize that Jaha is weighed down by the burden of his position, and the difficult choices that he has to make. Philosophical, flexible, principled and clever, it's fun to watch him be in charge.

The first ep has a great ending, which includes many major and minor roles.

If anything, I have one issue when it comes to the cast and the writing – a narrative over-reliance on Clarke starts to take place in season two. I understand that she’s the lead, but it feels like the series goes from having multiple protagonists to being completely centered on Eliza Taylor’s part. And, while Clarke is a great character and Taylor is a fine actress, there comes a point when it starts to feel forced.

As season 2 progresses, it seems like there are fewer independent storylines for people like Bellamy, Raven, Finn, and Octavia. Some guy abandons his girlfriend and replaces it with a semi-obsessive love for her that doesn’t feel earned. People begin to constantly talk about her when she’s not around – which reminded me of the James Dean movie I reviewed, and made much more sense there, frankly. One character loses his mind over the thought that she's in danger, the repercussions of which are not handled smoothly or well. Worst of all, the adult figures in this program have no problem letting Clarke be the spokesperson for their group.

It makes sense that the grownups cede ground to her on a few subjects – she establishes a working relationship with someone so important that Kane, Jaha, and her mom all realize that they should rely on Griffin the Younger. However, it soon seems to extend so far that it’s as if they’ve given all control over to Clarke – and that makes no sense from the child-adult angle, much less the fact that the people who do that are all headstrong leaders who would likely try to shift that influence over to themselves. I can’t ignore that it feels like a necessary result of CW’s programming trends – that they’d get solid actors like Henry Ian Cusick, Paige Turco, and Isaiah Washington, then sideline them because CW wants to appeal to teenagers by constantly showing teens in grown-up situations.

Beauty, risk, and passion are genetic traits for Bellamy and Octavia Blake.

And I have to add: as much as I don’t like making an issue of it, Ms. Taylor’s looks (and her role, who speaks in an American accent instead of the actress’ native Aussie voice) means that we have a busty white blonde running around telling everyone what to do. It didn’t stand out to me initially, but once the focus on her seemed excessive for the 10th or 20th time, the dynamic became an issue for me. In my more cynical moments, I've wondered if Clarke has the words “Manifest Destiny’ tattooed on her backside.

Now, whatever its flaws, The 100 does follow through on one possibility that I always enjoy in science fiction stories: with the old world order dead and gone, the gender divide has become meaningless. Women are not relegated to care-taker roles, they have as much freedom to take charge, call for battle, or give orders as the men do.

Some reviews that I’ve read have made a big deal out of this dynamic – and yet, to me, it’s just a normal fact of life. I am used to stories where a princess negotiates with a queen, and all of the males in the room are either advisors or body guards. Perhaps because I don’t think it’s strange to have females calling the shots, I view this aspect as being normal and natural while others see it as ground-breaking. In my book, if a woman is the best person to lead, then a woman shall lead. I’m glad that a popular TV program is showing this dynamic, I’m just not inclined to find it shocking or incredibly-progressive; to me, men and women leading side-by-side according to their abilities is just the way that things should be and should always have been.

The special effects are great, and the cinematography is superb. I've barely mentioned these things because they are so consistently good. Action sequences here are handled in a visceral and cool way. I love how the opening credits serve to give us detailed, yet unclear, glimpses into the terrain the 100 are in, as well as the varied groups involved in the larger tale of struggle and survival. The score is generally good, even if I get annoyed by all the "this is what MTV says you kids like now" music.

The 100 deserves a lot of credit. It builds up a credible post-apocalyptic universe, flush with many different factions that have their own distinctive goals and behaviors. It places everyone in this story on unstable footing that requires people in a fantastical setting to think on their feet and fight to resolve new problems. And it drives the various storylines forward in a way that is gratifying for sci-fi fans as well as people who enjoy new worlds with complicated politics, or even viewers who just want to get their teenage-angst fix. For my part, if only a world war would resolve the gender divide, then it might not be so bad - at least I'd have comrades, relations, or lovers like these to stand beside. The entire first season is on Netflix (with S2 to follow in the next two months or so), and I advise that you start watching it immediately.

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