In which Emily encourages you to celebrate calendrical oddities by watching a smart, morally complex, awesomely intertextual story about human society in a post-nuclear age.
Holy Kara Thrace.
The 100 is a compelling television show. Yeah, the beginning was a bit heavy-handed. (Although honestly, most pilots are a bit sketchy, aren’t they?) By the end of the first season, though, this CW dystopia had built itself into a complicated, ambitious, and wildly fast-paced story about what it means to be human in the wake of nuclear apocalypse. This Monday, we’ve got an extra twenty-four hours to enjoy. And sure, we’re all looking forward to using that extra day to check things off to-do lists so we can start March with fewer deadlines and responsibilities hanging over our heads. But you can’t spend all of Leap Day being productive. Breaks are important — especially when you have an extra day in your year!
So this year, we at TTLP would like to encourage you to check out The 100 (which is currently — super conveniently! — streaming on Netflix). The show’s airing its third season right now. And to be honest I’ve only seen the first so far. But in that first season, The 100 becomes a self-reflexive, morally complex show about environmental destruction, moral leadership, and the nature of humanity. Moreover, with a fantastic cast of iconic sci fi actors as well as the prerequisite attractive CW folk, The 100 is an (occasionally stressful, yet) awesome and intertextual show that ends up helping unpack we mean when we talk about genre television.
Here then, in honor of weird random holidays and awesome sci fi television, are eleven reasons to spend part of your Leap Day watching The 100.
1. In many ways, The 100 is a classic dystopian story. Ninety-seven years after nuclear apocalypse, a few thousand humans survive on a space station called “The Ark”. Their space-station-centered existence is really reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica — Lt. Gaeta’s even there!
But resources on the Ark are limited and life-support is failing. So a bunch of juvenile criminals (our eponymous 100) are sent down to Earth to see if it is liveable. Even as the Ark navigates political coups, resource shortages, and all of the troubles of an established society, the 100 engage in a much more Lord-of-the-Flies-type struggle to create a stable, just, and moral society in the first place. Drawing upon a tradition of dystopian storytelling, The 100 uses each half of its split cast (the ship and the ground) to explore big issues in a high-stakes environment.
2. Dystopias catch our attention because they become thought-experiments and limit cases. Because a dystopian world has super high stakes, dystopian fiction allows writers to consider philosophical issues in a real-world context. In its first season, The 100 explores utilitarianism, state-sanctioned killing, Marxist economic policies, libertarianism, environmental catastrophe, and religion. Characters argue about guilt and culpability, trust, revenge, redemption, grief, and hope. Ultimately, The 100 becomes a consideration of leadership, of the nature of civilization, and of the value of hope in desperate times.
3. In this dystopian context, The 100 finds a way to explore both the survivors-in-space trope and the rag-tag-group-attempts-to-create-a-civilization trope. With the teenagers, we get Lord of the Flies — or, perhaps more accurately, Lost without the mysticism and weirdness. With the adults back on the space-station, we get Battlestar Galactica — again without the mysticism. The 100 gets to explore the best of both tropes and to revel in the twinned inhospitable environments of post-nuclear, post-human Earth and of space itself.
4. In these parallel dystopias, The 100 is able to stage its own dialogue about leadership, hope, and the goodness of mankind. In the first episode, self-appointed leader of the 100 Bellamy Blake proclaims independence from the Ark, leading a chant of “Whatever the hell we want!” Over the course of the first season then, Bellamy and our other main characters must come to terms with what it means to be a leader and to enforce justice. And to not just do whatever the hell you want.
5. Moreover, The 100 is able to explore the idea of environmental devastation in a way that resonates powerfully with our own era and contemporary concerns about humanity’s impact upon the earth. The inciting incident of The 100 is, in a way, a nuclear apocalypse that devastated earth and its lifeforms. In the first few episodes, we see organisms poisoned or mutated by nuclear radiation. Even more powerfully, there’s a moment where it looked like The 100 was going to straight-out copy the Smoke Monster from Lost. But in the post-anthropocene world of The 100, the Smoke Monster isn’t a mystical island force: it’s acid fog. It’s a show that looks like it’s setting up the mystical weirdness of Lost, but instead imagines what the world will look like after the anthropocene.
6. On that note, The 100 is ridiculously intertextual and — through its casting and its references — becomes a show about genre tv itself. I refuse to believe that acid fog isn’t intended to evoke the Smoke Monster. And this is a show that casts Alessandro Juliani (Lt. Gaeta from Battlestar Galactica), Dichen Lachman (Sierra from Dollhouse), and Henry Ian Cusick (everyone’s favorite Scotsman, Desmond Hume from Lost). With its pedigree of classic sci fi actors and its deep attachment to the tropes of dystopian fiction, The 100 becomes a self-aware consideration of genre television and what we turn to genre television for.
7. While we’re on the subject of Dichen Lachman, the show has a lot of awesome ladies — and is relatively good at diverse representations in general. I have complicated feelings about representation in The 100, but it does enough interesting things that I’m looking forward to seeing more of the show and seeing how the racial politics of the show evolve. The main cast has many people of color and many awesome women. Moreover, I’ve only finished the first season, but I’ve heard tell that the show is currently also working through a queer relationship between two ladies. (Which is always awesome, of course.) To be honest, I think I need to see more of the show to be sure how I feel about its racial politics: although the main cast has a lot of interesting and complicated characters of color, the first season also involves a conflict with a group of threatening indigenous Others who are almost entirely played by people of color. Which is, you know, not exactly great. But with interesting women, diverse main characters, and the potential for queer relationships, I’m hoping that future seasons make good on this potential and show sophistication in their treatment of the racial politics of post-apocalyptic earth. There’s enough good happening here that I remain cautiously optimistic about representation in the world of The 100.
8. Post-apocalyptic earth itself is beautiful and the show itself is beautifully shot. In the ninety-seven years since nuclear apocalypse, the eastern United States has returned to woodland and swampland. Except now there are a lot of bioluminescent butterflies.
9. The aesthetics of the show in general are really engaging. In the final moments of the season one finale (no plot spoilers I promise), we hear Radiohead’s “Exit Music (for a Film)” play over the action. This is a show that delights in jamming along to Imagine Dragons’s “Radioactive” but also sits in the discomfort and alienation of Radiohead. And in that combination of abandon and introspection, The 100 becomes a story about what it means to be a teenager — or just a person — in the modern world.
10. Also, while I’m talking about aesthetics, the narrative development is pretty great. The CW has figured out how to plot genre shows. The speed of plot developments in this first season of The 100 reminded me of nothing so much than the second season of The Vampire Diaries or the first season of Jane the Virgin. Like both of those shows, plot ricochets by and character alliances shift, but everything remains highly motivated. It’s super captivating tv.
11. Ultimately, the situation is pretty ridiculously bleak at times, but The 100 isn’t nihilist and despairing. Instead, there’s always room for hope, goodness, love, and courage. The 100 finds space for a belief about the strength and morality of humanity. Yeah, in this show, humanity did stage a nuclear war. But we are not just our baser instincts. Instead, we are also people who manage to re-form civilization out of the wreckage of apocalypse. We are people who love, and protect, and fight for what is right.
So I’m really looking forward to starting the second season soon — as soon as I catch up on episodes of Agent Carter (because Holy Katharine Hepburn, that show is FANTASTIC and TTLP will certainly cover it at some point). And as you’re enjoying your extra day on Monday, why not take some time to check out The 100?