When The 100, based on the book of the same name by Kass Morgan, premiered midseason in spring 2014 I—like many others—was on post-apocalyptic teen angst overload. Though a longtime supporter of The CW network and its mixed bag of shows, I had a full belly of Hunger Games-eque dystopian fiction and mediocre sci-fi television shows. No thanks, I thought. I’ll pass.
It’s amazing how, when you suddenly find yourself with a lot of time on your hands, you start to second-guess that kind of decision. Less than a year after shrugging off The 100, I found myself marathoning 24 episodes in two days. It took me four days total to catch up to the second season as it aired. “I’ll pass” became “I’ll pass out if I don’t find out what happens next.” Why? Because this show is one of those “best shows you’re not watching.” It’s sharp, it’s dark, it’s full of seasoned actors and powers-that-be from known genre quantities, and the young cast of largely unknowns is incredibly talented. There are no love triangles, no single smears of dirt on clean, pretty faces—and that’s not meant to be pejorative per se; even Battlestar Galactica, to which this show frequently tips its hat, had a love quadrangle running through it. If The 100 has a central love story, it’s between morality and leadership. Can these two crazy kids work together, or are they fundamentally incompatible? Clarke Griffin, imbued with increasing weariness and cynicism by Eliza Taylor, struggles with this conundrum from the moment the titular hundred teen criminals are sent to Earth from a dying Ark.
And she’s not the only one. Hard choices and even harder deaths are the bread and butter of the series, which boasts the strongest cast of women I’ve seen in a long, long time. Men like Isaiah Washington’s Chancellor Jaha and Henry Ian Cusick’s Marcus Kane seem to be power-brokers, but it quickly becomes clear that Clarke is the one driving the action and making the real decisions.
Clarke’s mother, Ark doctor and later Chancellor, Abby (Paige Turco) sets the tone for untenable choices and spurs her daughter on the winding path through two seasons of hell. Octavia (Marie Avgeropoulos), the coddled little sister of hunky antagonist Bellamy Blake (Bob Morley), becomes one of the show’s fiercest characters. Her love story with one of the Earth natives or “Grounders,” provides a romantic through-line in the midst of a lot of uncertainty and turmoil, but not at the expense of her strength. Similarly, hotshot mechanic Raven Reyes (Lindsey Morgan, who excels here after an ill-fit as General Hospital‘s Kristina) could’ve been set up as an enemy of Clarke’s, but the two women are better than that. They’ve got bigger things to worry about. Their priorities rank higher than petty feuds over boys. The 100‘s priorities rank higher, too. As we meet even more badass women and encounter more horrors, it’s clear that the show is about survival, about how society never really changes and humans will always self-sabotage.
If you liked BSG or Lost, this is their twisted, bastard child. The body count is ridiculous—it’s really more like The 62 as we head into the home stretch of season two—and the tension is always mounting, but there’s also a lot of humor and depth of feeling. You want Clarke to save her people. You hope the characters will have time to grow and fall in love and explore the planet. But every week is a nail-biter, because you know no one is safe. Hard choices, harder deaths. Somehow, it all brings The 100 to life.