TV Review: The CW's 'The 100' has a rough start but improves a little
Stop me if you've heard this one before: In elementary school at some point, we had to do extended book reports. I chose "Lord of the Flies," as you do. Well, part of the assignment was to select a character you liked at the beginning of the book and do a chapter-by-chapter diary from that character's point of view.
I sympathized and empathized with Piggy, so he was an easy choice for my diary-writing. For a couple chapters, I wrote lengthy entries about the challenges of being a pudgy, bespectacled outsider in a group of increasingly feral kids, discovering how quickly the trappings of civilization fall away. Then, of course, very bad things happen to Piggy and his beloved conch.
Briefly, I was crushed. Subsequently, I realized that my assignment had just gotten vastly easier. For the last chunk of the diary, I wrote nothing other than the chapter and "Still dead."
There are a variety of reasons why Piggy's death in "Lord of the Flies" is so shocking and powerful. You don't necessarily need to love the character. Frankly, he's a bit of a pill. Other characters want to be noble or savage. Piggy wants to be civilized and domesticated in exactly the way a grown-up would want them to be, not in any organic way. His death doesn't have subtle meaning. It has whack-you-over-the-head-with-a-mallet portentous meaning, but it still hits home. It hurts because you don't want the character to die, but you also don't want the idea that the character represents to die. And it kicks you in the groin because "Lord of the Flies" was written back in the days before "Hunger Games" and whatnot, back when the idea of killing off juvenile characters in fiction was something that writers didn't do haphazardly. Writers had to earn those deaths and they didn't make the assumption that they were being badass just because they offed somebody too young to buy scratchers at the 7-11.
We've made a lot of jokes over the years about The CW's assembly line of hot young stars, with the punchlines peaking this fall when the network actually dipped back into the Amell gene pool to pair Robbie Amell's "Tomorrow People" with Stephen's "Arrow." We always suspected that CW stars were a renewable and somewhat interchangeable resource, often harvested and refined from Australia. But with "The 100," the formula has expanded to accentuate the disposable nature of these chiseled, all vaguely familiar thespians.
The CW once talked about doing a "Battle Royale" series, but the network seemed to realize that in a post-Columbine, post-Newtown, post-Aurora world, some tip-going was required. "The 100" isn't that "Battle Royale" remake, but it is a futuristic drama that revels in killing off young characters, sometimes with intended gravity, but usually with a cavalier shrug of disinterest. There's so much happening and so many characters moving around in "The 100" that it's impossible to care about anybody getting killed off, so you're just supposed to feel like the show is exhibiting braveness on principle.
Here's the weird and confusing and disappointing thing about "The 100": If I had reviewed it off of the first two episodes, I'd have been veering in the direction of a D/F-grade review and you'd have gotten to see Angry Dan. If I'd have reviewed it off of the first four episodes, I probably wouldn't have moved above a D+/C-. I've seen six episodes and my grade has inched up even more. I thought those first two episodes were awful -- Badly written characters being acted poorly and put through uninteresting pacts. I thought the next two episodes were bad -- Still badly written, poorly acted characters, but at least they were doing some unpredictably things.
The last two episodes I watched? I'm not going to say they're good. They're not. But there's a narrative that's finally taking shape and a few -- not close to all -- of the actors are settling in to their roles, correcting performances that were misdirected in the pilot. I'm still struggling to find a single character whose fate I'm even vaguely invested in, but my outright antipathy towards some of the characters had begun to fade.
In the end, that makes for a conflicted review on "The 100." I really can't recommend the show at all. But if you're intrigued by the premise and kernels of the pilot interest you, I can assert that "The 100" gets better. That's tepid encouragement in general, but it's more enthusiastic if you watch the pilot and you actually like it.
Honestly, that could probably be my review, but more detailed and show-specific thoughts are after the break.
Adapted by Jason Rothenberg from the skeleton of Kass Morgan's book, "The 100" takes place 97 years after a nuclear apocalypse left Earth uninhabitable. Several space stations were fused together into something called The Ark and what remains of humanity is orbiting the Earth just waiting for the chance to return. Because resources are limited, punishment is Draconian: For adults, small crimes lead to death. For youths, crimes lead to immediate lock-up. That means that The Ark's prison population is young and, because this is The CW, exclusively attractive.
With resources dwindling, somebody decides it would be a smart idea to send 100 convicts down to Earth with limited supervision. If they die? They die. If they live, maybe it'll be time for us all to move back. And, under those circumstances, who wouldn't want to return to an Earth that has dozens of juvies prowling the wilderness? And don't tell me, "they have sensors on the pint-sized crooks," because that's just another half-baked part of a half-baked idea.
The half-baked idea has to be conveyed very quickly and very exposition ally in a pilot that I'm not generous enough to call "clunky." The establishment of the premise is dire and it has to supersede the establishment of characters, but once we get around to that, it's dire as well. Somewhat supported by the idea that the convicts have been in isolation and don't really know each other, there's a even more exposition once The 100 land on Earth. Hardly a line of dialogue goes by in the first half of the pilot without characters making declarative statements about themselves or other characters making declarative statements about them -- "You're the traitor who's been in isolation for a year,"
"You're the idiot who wasted a month of oxygen on an illegal space walk," "That's Octavia, the girl they found in the floor," "You all think I'm the bad guy, but I'm the only one willing to do what it takes!"
There's an approach to storytelling wherein you might introduce characters by having them do things that tell us things about them, but "The 100" would prefer to talk and talk and talk, but only in dialogue that tells us things about them and the socio-political climate in space. It's monomaniacal writing aimed to convey information and absolutely nothing else and, as a result, I learned a few things about a few characters, but mostly learned to dislike them. Our ostensible hero Clarke (Eliza Taylor) comes across as shrill and entitled and everybody tells her that she's shrill and entitled. There's The Chancellor's Son, The Asian Guy, The Aforementioned Girl They Found In The Floor, The Girl They Found In The Floor's Brother, The Awful Guy Played By The Guy Who Plays Creepy Teens and a ton of generic pretty people who are around either to rambunctiously celebrate their newfound freedom or to disposably die. See, Earth isn't quite as evacuated as the people on The Ark thought, at the very least it's home to some radioactive critters, but there are signs there may be more out there. Think "Chernobyl Diaries" only with a bland cast of pretty people who you're perfectly happy to see die. So... just think "Chernobyl Diaries," only with a much larger cast of pretty people you're perfectly happy to see die.
Everybody down on Earth looks exactly the same. Yes, there are minor variations in skin tone, but the prisoners have only been culled from the aesthetic high-end of the gene pool and whatever drawbacks incarceration may have had, they've all at least had regular gym access. They all speak in one of two ways as well. The good guys are all hyper-earnest and essentially humorless. The bad guys are all sarcastic about the class system they left behind on The Ark. And they all keep saying and doing stupid things like not running and screaming when they encounter mutated fauna or pausing to skinny-dip in the middle of an exploratory mission or yelling about how they can now do whatever they want because there are no ramifications. If "The 100" were a horror movie, EVERYBODY in the movie would be the person who dies first.
And up in space,things aren't any better, even if the actors are more recognizable. Isaiah Washington plays The Chancellor, so he's stern and authoritative. Henry Ian Cusick is slightly weasely and reveling in the fact that in space, nobody has a nationality, so it's OK to waffle between accents. Paige Turco plays Clarke's mother and they have the exact same mixture of indignation and self-righteousness, which is nice writing symmetry, except that it meant that I didn't like either character. Since this is on The CW, you know that the stuff with the geriatrics in space will be an afterthought, but I'm sure there's a way of developing that world without making its obsolescence so blatant. [I imagine a world in which CBS might air a version of "The 100" set only in space, with adults dealing with life-or-death struggles, while The CW could air a version of "The 100" set only on Earth, with pretty people dealing with shelter-building and what I assume is really grungy unprotected sex.]
Part of why every character on "The 100" has to be announced through their defining characteristics is because they're all "complicated," but they're complicated in the same simplistic way. It's programmatic pragmatism wherein you're introduced to everybody as being broadly one thing, but there's a reverse coming for nearly every character. Nobody, you see, is exactly what they seem to be on the surface. They've all got secrets, but almost like they're writers themselves, they hint at dark mysteries and then add,"I can't say what it is just yet." The characters might as well say, "Don't worry. You'll learn why I'm such an ass in Episode 6." It's the same problem that all of the characters on "Hostages" had, where the desire to plant seeds for the future was more important than giving them voices and letting the complexities unfold gradually.
I say this over and over and over again about bad pilots, but it's true: You don't get endless opportunities to introduce your characters and if you do it badly, it's almost impossible to recover.
"The 100" tries to recover. It tries to introduce stakes that are unexpected, to lull you into being sure that certain characters are important and then doing bad things to them. But stakes don't come from plot points. They come from plot points related to characters we care about. Just because you give a character five lines of dialogue early in an episode doesn't mean I'll be sad/disappointed/impacted when that character dies. They have to be the right five lines of dialogue. And utilizing flashbacks to reveal that characters aren't who I thought they were doesn't work if what I thought they were was one-dimensional characters.
An example: The Girl in the Floor Octavia (Marie Avgeropoulos) and Her Broody Brother Bellamy (Bob Morley) have a genuinely interesting flashback in the sixth episode, but you sense that the writers didn't tell the actors the information in the flashback until that script arrived and that they certainly didn't tell the pilot director. The flashback suddenly makes Octavia and Bellamy into real-ish people and suddenly gives Avgeropoulos and Morley parts to play, but it also made me feel like none of the acting decisions in the five previous episodes made any character-driven sense. They made plot-driven sense and they made sense on an outline board, but that wasn't what was being played before that. Thinking back after the sixth episode, there are a lot of things Octavia and Bellamy did in previous episodes that verge on absurd. I want to watch a show about the characters from that sixth episode, but I'd watched five previous episodes about different people.
After six episodes, yes, "The 100" is taking shape and some of the balls in the air are interesting, but the characters are still the people I first encountered and hated in the early episodes. That can't be undone. Since all the characters were initially written to describe themselves and others as archetypes, but none of them were written to behave as archetypes, it takes way too long for the performances to come into focus or the actual characters to come into focus. I wonder how much of that came from taking the outline of a book and then going in a different direction, rather than just crafting a futuristic "Lord of the Flies" from scratch.
As "The 100" goes along, you can feel it becoming more and more the show that Rothenberg and his writers want it to be, but it sure starts off at a great distance from from that destination. And even as it gets closer, there are still too many moments of mind-numbing illogic. As I said, the show that "The 100" is in its first two episodes is, for me, a D/F-grade show. By the last two? I think it was up into a C+ range. I appreciate that The CW sent out six episodes so I could at least have a fuller picture of the show's quality, but I know that if I'd only been sent a couple early episodes, I'd never have checked it out again.
"The 100" premieres at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, March 19 on The CW.