The CW’s new post-nuclear drama The 100, which premieres at 9 p.m. tonight, invites all kinds of comparisons. A spaceship of survivors of course conjures Battlestar Galactica. The violent teens wandering through a dangerous wooded setting brings to mind The Hunger Games. The ratty sweatshirts recall The Matrix. The band of outcasts in an unfriendly environment has Lost written all over it. And while The 100 doesn’t quite stack up to those shows and movies, it has a sensibility and swagger that places the new series in good company. The 100 is better than it has to be, a little more exciting and surprising and intense. It’s that margin that excites me about the show.
The pilot is very (though appropriately) exposition heavy: 97 years ago, the Earth was subject to a nuclear disaster that wiped out humanity. Luckily, there were 400 people on 12 international space stations; they joined forces and formed “the Ark,” which has now been home to three generations of space-born people. Now the 4,000 survivors are running out of resources, and even though the Earth still isn’t quite safe, the ruling dictatorship decides to send 100 teen delinquents down to the surface to test just how uninhabitable it is. At first, the teens are pissed. But then, they are excited! Finally, a chance to be free of the Draconian rules of space law, where people get executed (“floated,” in 100 parlance) all the time and everyone is drab and sad! Even if Earth is still a nuclear disaster zone, better to be here on the ground, frolicking and swimming in our underpants, than stuck on that grouchy old spaceship where we were in kid-jail.
A lot of the dialog on The 100 ends in exclamation points: “They didn’t arrest my father, they executed him!” “I need to have fun!” “Get out of the water!” “That’s the point, Chancellor!” “I chose to make sure that we deserve to stay alive!” There are all your expected CW types: good girl, bad girl, bad boy who likes both good and bad girls, silly stoner sidekick, parent in position of authority. But don’t write it off: The 100 takes on a political narrative right away. Is there righteousness in revolt? Is the lawlessness borne out of the ruins of a ruthless regime just as dangerous as the oppressiveness it overthrew? If your own government betrays you, what are your responsibilities to your fellow citizens? Also, when is everybody gonna kiss? It seems like soon.
The “no sound in space” pedant in me found plenty to quibble with in the show’s setup, like how regular Earth-force gravity appears to be extant on the Ark, how there seems to be plenty of sophisticated weaponry on said space station, even though no new resources have been available for 97 years, and how everyone seems to have normal bone density, even though they’ve been in space for their whole lives. For four generations, humanity has lived in an oxygen-controlled environment — so where did anyone learn how to build a bonfire?
But despite these frustrations, and despite some labored dialogue, it’s with enormous relief that I get to file The 100 under “not garbage.” There’s a lot of bad sci-fi out there, a lot of bad teen shows, and some series on the CW I wish would make more of an effort, but The 100 is off to a strong start. As our misfit teens move through the spooky woods, two tertiary characters hang toward the back of the group, and jovially bonk each other on the chest, like two sophomores dawdling on their way to chemistry class. It’s not a big moment on the show, but it’s those small things that make a character — or several characters, or even a world of characters — feel real and relatable and like someone you’d be friends with in a nuclear holocaust. I wish there were a better explanation of how the Ark grows food, but in that moment of these two doofballs ragging on each other, the show communicated a lot about how humanity still operates, how the ordinary camaraderie of mammal life has survived, and that the show itself has a sense of humor, even with its gloomy premise. It’s nice to see a show that’s trying.