The season three premiere of “The 100” is encouraging in any number of ways. Its energy practically jumps off the screen, the way various story threads are picked up and carried forward is crisp and efficient, and the show continues to grapple with the psychological consequences of the wrenching end of season two through believable character development. “Wanheda: Part 1” is simply terrific to look at, and the commitment of the cast is palpable. There are moments of badassery that made me cheer.
One of the best things about this installment and the three episodes that follow is the look of “The 100”: The show’s directors, production designers, set decorators and costumers have outdone themselves this season.
When looking at the epic feel and varied array of stories on display in season three, which overtly and covertly recalls “The Lord of the Rings” saga in a number of ways, it’s almost hard to recall how limited the scope and the ambitions of “The 100” were two years ago, when a rag-tag band of survivors first crash-landed on Earth. In season three (which the cast and showrunner previewed here), the show is more politically complicated than ever, and the world-building that accompanies the depiction of various factions, alliances and conflicts is generally admirable.
A lot of people wrote the show off back when it first premiered, but I wasn’t one of them. I don’t say that to be annoyingly smug, truly. I just feel lucky that in the gigantic flood of TV that every critic has to sift through, I spotted enough interesting elements to keep me watching, despite other demands on my time. My patience was rewarded, given that “The 100” developed into one of my favorite shows, a knotty and rewarding tale of survival and disillusionment wrapped up in an exciting adventure yarn (or maybe it’s the other way around).
All that said, when writing and talking about “The 100,” I’ve been honest about the show’s flaws. Sometimes it rushes past story elements that needed more care and attention. A few characters have been thinly drawn (Maya) or hard to take (I wasn’t a Murphy fan in Season 1, though I am now). In a show that wants to explore the morality of complicated men and women, character development and challenging choices need to be outlined with rigor and believable texture, but that hasn’t always happened. Occasionally, the show’s desire to sketch bold allegories or achieve a certain momentum slides into sloppiness and corner-cutting.
All those things happen in a major way in the third and fourth episodes of the new season, and the way those problematic elements play out gave me serious pause. It’s only one story line in a show where the rest of the plots are functioning just fine, but everything is connected within the world of “The 100” — which is as it should be.
What worries me is that the overly speedy aspects of that story line, which lacks nuance and meaningful depth, weakens one of the core pillars of “The 100.” My objections could be partly summed up by asserting this truth: When a person on “The 100” is given an array of bad options, a viewer will understand why a character picked a certain path, even if the viewer doesn’t necessarily agree with that choice. Hand-waving away concerns about set-up and follow-through doesn’t work with this show, because half the appeal of “The 100” centers on our ability to empathize with people who often do terrible things. We need to know why they do those things, and we need to care even if they make choices that ends up working out very badly for them and for others.
Very little about the story line that concerns me is credible, let alone entertaining, and one new character is just as grating as can be this season. It’s not the performer, it’s the way the character is written. This person is a one-dimensional cardboard cut-out on a show that has mostly avoided that kind of predictable writing.
I don’t want to be more specific than that for now; I don’t want to ruin your viewing experience; it’s entirely possible that none of these things will trouble you as you watch “The 100’s” third season. I should make it clear that I will continue to watch the show and hope that it rides out what, for me, is a disappointing instance of disarray as well as a number of missed opportunities. The good elements of season three — and there are quite a few — may allow the show to rise above and/or excise the weak elements and return to top form by mid-season. We’ll just have to see.
By the way, I asked “The 100” executive producer Jason Rothenberg about all the things I’ve outlined above — good and bad — and he answered every single one of my questions with equanimity. (Look to my Variety colleague Laura Prudom for a series of interviews with the cast of “The 100” in coming days.) This is part 1 of the Rothenberg interview. Part 2 will be posted after episode four airs. May we meet again…to discuss the ups and downs of season three.
Ryan McGee and I discussed the return of “The 100,” along with “The X-Files,” “The Magicians,” “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” and several other shows, in the most recent Talking TV podcast, which is here and on iTunes.
“The 100” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on The CW.