Monday Morning Critic: ‘The 100′ and What The CW is Doing Right
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
In this week’s installment: what The CW’s dramas are getting right that those on other major networks are mostly getting wrong.
Back in my college days, I used to do a lot of theatre. I was on the tech side, since I couldn’t act, dance, or sing. (I really couldn’t build, sew, or rig either, but that’s another story altogether.) Plays on almost all levels encounter budget limitations, and what certain shows did with those limitations often defined a successful play or an amateur embarrassment. Leaning into those limitations usually worked best: Often, a few chairs in an empty space sold the illusion far greater than a sloppily painted wall meant to suggest an ornate drawing room.
As the character Christof said in ‘The Truman Show,’ “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” Only when items stray from that presented reality does the artifice actually reveal itself. That artifice doesn’t just relate to the types of reality programs that movie was skewering. It also reveals itself in scripted dramas when programs tie themselves into such narrative knots that the strings they have been invisibly manipulating all snap suddenly into focus.
All good shows have these omnipresent strings all the time. All the great ones hide them during the act of watching the show for the first time. In other words: It can be incredibly fun to analyze the actions of the puppeteers after an episode has aired, but it’s a real bummer to do it in real time. Rather than suspending one’s reality, the audience member is judging the superficial world of plot twists and knotty mysteries in real-time. And while it’s all well and good for a show to have a payoff after a lengthy set-up period, it’s almost always more cathartic to see a character make a decision based on a year’s worth of interactions rather than the final puzzle piece of a dense plot snap into place.
In a perfect world, both actions happen simultaneously. But when watching a show like ‘The 100,’ as I did all weekend (and I almost mean “all weekend” literally, as I binged all 15 episodes over the course of a day and a half), I’m reminded of the fact that my favorite shows know the difference between a complex decision and a complex plot. As critic Maureen Ryan once said, “Complication is not complexity.” What she meant by that is simply throwing the kitchen sink at a protagonist is not how great drama is built. Rather, great drama is built from presenting two characters with clearly understood agendas against one another and see what they do about it. This is Drama 101, but only a few shows like ‘The 100’ seem to get that right now.
On the surface, ‘The 100’ looks like a teeny-bopper ‘Battlestar: Galactica,’ and it’s amazingly good-looking cast suggests a surface-level approach to the apocalypse. It’s the kind of stereotype that kept me initially away from the show, and no doubt keeps millions of audience members away from The CW in general. That’s a horribly unfair attitude, one that I’ve had to slowly correct in myself for years. While not stacked top to bottom with shows I enjoy, the network nonetheless airs four of the eight hour-long shows I will henceforth watch regularly: ‘Jane The Virgin,’ ‘The Flash,’ ‘Arrow,’ and ‘The 100.’ All four at this point adhere to the easy-to-understand-yet-almost-impossible-to-achieve attitude that keeping things simple is often the best way to get things incredibly messy.
In any given episode of ‘The 100,’ the tasks before each character are clear. There are objectives laid out, cross-purposes established, and gnarly moral dilemmas to face. Yes, an apocalyptic drama lends itself to some easy-to-generate stakes such as “How we will find food tonight?” and “Who should live or die in a spaceship that can’t sustain the current population?” But what makes ‘The 100’ so good is the way it makes these choices specific to its characters. This isn’t philosophy posing as sci-fi television. This is a surprisingly no-holds-barred show in which characters die with alarming frequency and people actually change based on the accumulations of their actions. In other words, it’s a show that takes into account the costs of the choices it presents and makes this choice stick.
When we talk about the truly complex shows on television, we need to stop thinking less about shows that require a wiki to actually figure out what the hell is happening and think more about shows that push their characters into impossible corners. No one in ‘The 100’ gets off easy here, from our nominal hero Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor) to the initially moustache-twirling councilman Marcus Kane (Henry Ian Cusick). There’s a constant disconnect in information between those orbiting earth and those sent to discover if it’s inhabitable a century after nuclear war. The audience sees the actions of both sides, which means the audience gets to watch wrongheaded move after wrongheaded move derail any attempts to unite the two sides. And yet, those moves are not wrongheaded within the context of each side’s operational information. Seeing a character like Kane finally get a piece of the larger picture, or seeing formally moral Clarke agree to have a character tortured in order to save the life of someone, spins both off their axes, and allows ‘The 100’ to follow both along their new paths.
That’s what makes shows complex in a compelling, sustainable manner. A show building up to a singular reveal of a long-gestating mystery is ultimately reductive. A show that constantly forces its characters to make decisions in which there is no right answer is expansive. We learn about these people through their decisions, and through that messy accumulation of decisions we see them for the complex, three-dimensional people they are. This isn’t about the show’s initial antagonist Bellamy turning into an antihero. This is about the show revealing that every one of the characters on this show can make horrible choices with the best of intentions. They can also make noble choices that surprise even themselves.
There’s nothing to say that these four shows on The CW will continue on the paths they all currently inhabit. But it’s important to note that all four of these shows have the type of budget limitations that would be used as an excuse on other networks for poor quality. Rather than use it as an excuse, these four shows have decided what truly matters for their programs and leaned into telling lean, character-based stories that still maintain the spirit of the telenovela/sci-fi/superhero genres from which they sprang. Since they have almost no choice but to focus on character, these four shows have demonstrated a keen knack for crafting episodes that build off one another rather than towards a predetermined endpoint. Each installment builds off the last, yielding a richer tapestry upon which to tell the latest tell. It’s a technique as old as time. And yet, the youngest major network seems to be the only one that currently remembers how it’s done.