I’m hesitant to even write about the third season of “The 100,” which premieres this Thursday, January 21, for two reasons. The first is purely practical: It’s hard to talk about the season without describing what happens in it, and watching the story unfold is something you as a viewer need to experience without having it spoiled. But the second is more problematic: In these first four episodes shown for review, there’s a schism in it that potentially will tear the whole show apart.
Now, that sucks to write, as I’ve been championing the show since the start of the second season. I missed the boat on season one, caught up during an insanely enjoyable marathon one weekend last Fall, and haven’t missed an episode since. Moreover, I’ve essentially loved every episode since, with its relentless drive, insistence on stakes, and endless imagination impressing me at every turn. I put it on my year-end list, and put it there easily. It wasn’t some choice to make mine stand out from the countless lists that omitted it. “The 100” was one of the fifteen best TV shows of 2015, full stop.
So what’s wrong now?
Again, there won’t be specifics. There’s no point to that, although I’m pretty sure that most of you will figure it out as the early episodes unfold. There are three main storylines in those first four hours. One is as rock-solid and engaging as “The 100” has ever been, pushing the show from “Lord Of The Flies” into “Lord Of The Rings” and making it feel like an evolution rather than new a direction. One storyline seems borrowed from a certain “Star Trek” film, but I’m holding out judgment on it until it fully reveals itself. But the third…the third feels like a bad attempt to write a spec script for “The 100” rather than a part of the show itself, and is so different than anything else that I’m just not sure what to make of it.
I can’t convey what happens, but I can convey what bothers me so much about it. Essentially, it violates the core storytelling principles that the show has worked so hard to established, and then throws them away in favor of creating conflict for conflict’s sake. That’s never been what the show’s about for a single second, and to see all that patience and discipline thrown out the window in 33% of its content is so jarring as to beggar belief. If the whole show fell of a cliff, that would be equally surprising but in many ways more understandable. Look no further than the second season of “Sleepy Hollow” to see just how fragile a television show truly is.
Now, this isn’t a case of poor ol’ me suddenly disappointed in a show. In the end, who gives a crap about that. What bad in the first four episodes could be turned around by episode eight, but it’s unforced error that shouldn’t need correcting in the first place. The bad storyline in question doesn’t add anything to our understanding of the world, but simply places past conflicts and mindsets onto new characters and drags down existing, beloved ones in the process. It then takes those old moves and speeds them up to 78 RPM, requiring whiplash character alterations. It’s fine for a character to do something surprising, but we have to understand why that surprising choice happens. In this segmented part of “The 100,” those choices simply don’t past muster.
It’s doubly unfortunate because this storyline contains elements of what this third season seems to be about on a thematic level: Maintaining one’s identity and heritage in the face of cultural assimilation. All distinct clans (including those from Ark) constantly wrestle with understanding to whom they own allegiance and with whom they identify. Genre fiction can take these types of thorny social issues and embed them within their narratives. It’s one of the best, most enduring, and more important aspects of this type of storytelling. Much like on “Lost,” each faction views themselves in respect to the other, and the prisms through which those gazes are directed can be clear or distorted. Characters like Clarke and Lexa work because they instinctively recognize their similarities even while constantly finding themselves in conflict. That conflict is as much internal as external. That’s a fantastic starting point for storytelling, whether in a post-apocalyptic world.
But “The 100” substitutes the complexity of that particular relationship by establishing straw men and shortcuts to add tension to a situation that was already plenty fraught with it. This all matters not because I’m not a huge fan of this third season, but because “The 100” has been an example of what television should be trying to emulate. It has been a patient, brutal, emotionally-grounded show that understood that change was something to be embraced rather than feared. The two-thirds of the show that still employs that still works and still surprises. The other third hasn’t crippled the show, but I worry it might infect “The 100” if left unchecked.
Is this an overreaction or a prescient sign of what’s to come? I hope it’s the former. Being proved correct here wouldn’t bring me an ounce of joy. The problems here could be this show’s version of Kalinda’s husband on “The Good Wife” or a sign that the show’s almost impeccable run has finally run out. All good things come to an end, even if “good” things rarely happen on this show. Telling stories audiences don’t expect is the job of those writing shows like this.
But selling those audiences short through poor characterization that undermines their investment? That’s something else altogether.