Monday, January 22, 2018

From the Writer's Studio: Dystopian Television and The CW's "The 100"

As has become habit here on the Gauntlet, the "From the Writers Studio" feature has kind of drifted from a general discussion of the do and dont's and analysis of writing and screenwriting to something more of a review column that focuses on film and televised media that either vexes or delights me for a variety of scripting and political reasons. The CW networks' "The 100" is one of those so-called delights, and as it is about to enter its fifth season, and I have such warm and fuzzy feelings about it, I'll thought I'd take this opportunity tell you why.

Based on a moderate-selling YA novel by author Kass Morgan, and developed for television in true ensemble form by writer/producer/show-runner Jason Rosenberg, The 100 features a really swell bunch of international actors and great CG by Zoic, yet the viewership of the series has generally ranked low for a genre show of its type. I personally suspect that the episodes are being watched in a number of non-traditional ways, and I suspect that the CW suspects the same thing, because numbers aside, it is quite clear that the fan base is quite earnest in their adoration. But that of course begs the question, why is it so adored?

So lets get started with an overall synopsis.

The 100 is set some 140 years in our future, and at least at the beginning of the series, it has been 97 years since the earth has been destroyed by a global nuclear war. We soon learn, pretty quickly actually, that some two or three thousand persons have inter-generationally escaped the radioactive devastation aboard a composite and now failing orbiting space station known simply as "the Ark", for obvious reasons.

As a political aside, I should point out that the Ark is run by a council that functions similarly to a Communist committee, and rightly so, because the Ark is overtly collectivist in philosophy, is a closed circular economy, and all personal needs are sacrificed on the alter of community survival until the earth is suitable for resettlement.

Enter the protagonist, Clarke Griffin. Artistic, yet practical and expedient, Clarke is so "no nonsense' that she really needs the ensemble characters just to lighten her up most of the time. Regardless, Clarke is an imprisoned teenager, and daughter of one of the families at the top of the stations oligarchy, who is forcibly being sent to the ground with 100 others in order to test the survival potential of the earth, for as I mentioned, the station itself is on borrowed time.

Quite wisely, once the delinquents have been ferried down to earth, to the (unrecognizable) former DC area, the action continues aboard the station, focusing on the drama of the "adult" characters. This effectively divides the ensemble in half and offers a clear "A" an "B" story platform on which the early part of the series pivots.

Upon making landfall in a "drop-ship", the "children" are quickly torn between complying with their lifelong indoctrination to the Communist Technocracy, promoted primarily by Clarke, and embracing full-tilt Anarchy, under the somewhat self-serving needs of Bellamy "whatever the hell you want" Blake, a young man who is almost obsessively dedicated to the protection of his previously hidden younger sister, Octavia. They are the only siblings presented in the 100 universe (at least in space), as the Ark had a strict one-child policy, the violation of which was punishable, like all other infractions, with the death penalty.

The initial tension between Clarke and Bellamy's nascent "factions" is nicely paralleled by the  politcal wrangling of Chancellor Thelonious Jaha and Councilman Marcus Kane's utilitarian vs. humanist ruler-ship orientation conflict back on the Ark for the first half of the first season.

On the ground the younger characters are, perhaps not unexpectedly, beset by the gambit of basic survival needs and a mounting conflict with the "indigenous" population of mysterious and warlike "grounders" (the descendants of people who survived the nuclear holocaust) that they have unknowingly landed among. Back in orbit, survival becomes even more dicey as the Ark moves to failure and political break-away factions vie for control.

Clarke and Bellamy soon see the obvious expediency of "joint rule / chieftain-ship", i.e "Bellarke" (as fans like to call them) as their personalities compliment one another nicely. Likewise, Kane, Jaha, and Clarke's mother, Abby, start to work together more effectively.

Politically, this is a thread that moves the story-line from the Communist technocracy to a tribal aggregation, thus making the world of the Ark and that of the Ground mesh more effectively. As it turns out, and as we learn more about the grounder culture, it is revealed that their society is organized as a feudal confederacy (BTW actual feudalism here, not Game of Thrones faux-feudal culture), with a merit-based rotating tribal monarchy ruling from their "federal" capitol and religious center located at a half-demolished city named "Polis".

Having let you in on the basic paradigm, much of which can be gleaned in the pilot alone, if not before the first season finale, and rather than just compile a list of spoilers by divulging what happens throughout the four previously-aired seasons, I'd instead like to generally express what I like about the story-lines and writing, and posit some slight changes that I might have preferred to see had I had an influence on a few of the directions.

So, a screenwriter's wish list of sorts.

Unlike many shows that I do find problematic, (and believe me there are a boat-load of them), I find little to no flaws in the development arcs of any of the featured characters. They are all consistent, distinct, occupy a place in the "jenga" of story-line and never, or rarely, do characters act in contradiction to the parameters of their stated personalities, as it always should be. This is the essence of good episodic story-telling, in line with sound plotting, and whenever this aspect is ignored the suspension of disbelief is shattered and the show is bound to face disaster as sure as the Titanic did.

For me, the most dramatic, and most pleasing of the slowly changing arcs belong to Marcus Kane and one of the younger 100, rakish John Murphy. Marcus goes from a completely utilitarian stance to a fully humanistic one, even fighting against (the former humanist) Jaha's implementation of an Artificial Intelligence driven theocracy in season three. Murphy goes from a snarky, over-compensating, self-obsessed ne'er-do-well to a snarky ne'er-do-well who we know deeply cares for his friends and loved ones (particularly his mutant girlfriend Emori), though he never would admit it. Both Murphy (and Emori - or "Jomori") and Kane are The 100's consummate survivors, always trying to figure out what is the, or their, best next move, on micro and macro levels.

Politically, democracy rarely rears its head throughout the entirety of the series, excluding slight forays into mob consensus, lotteries, and protest movements like Jasper's ill-fated self-immolation cult. Even the calculating folks at Mount Weather, who we are led to believe are the descendants of US government and military personnel, seem to have moved to an hereditary presidency, so they too are oligarchic in structure.

Ironically, in the overall back-story, the impetus for almost all of the events presented currently stem from a single tech corporations experiments. However, the recurring theme is the destruction or perversion / mutation of corporate intellectual property by either later Communist or Feudal tendencies.

In fact, a grand total of only two Capitalist entrepreneurs are introduced as characters throughout the series. The first is on the Ark, in the form of an overtly disreputable female trading post operator called Nygel, and on the ground in the form of a well-meaning grounder trading post operator, and Clarke's sometime lesbian paramour, Niylah. Interesting that the names are so similar. Hmm.

Now onto my wish list and a few things that I have some (slight, but livable) qualms with.

I have talked to many people who found they couldn't take the show seriously from the moment when Octavia sounded the first words of anyone to set foot on earth in a century, by screaming: "We're back bitches!", followed by Imagine Dragons "Radioactive" kicking in as the soundtrack. Yes, it is juvenile, but, at least for me that is the point. These are kids, and juvenile delinquents to boot. I personally have no problem with that, but here are six of my other thoughts. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)

1. I would have preferred that when Chancellor Jaha eventually came down to the ground in solo form, that he landed much further away from Arkadia. I think ideally it would have been nice had he not only imagined that he heard a baby in his guilt over the earlier loss of his son, Welles, but that he actually had to save a few left over stranded Ark residents who would have been dependent on him and that he would have led like Moses toward the 100's camp over the course of about half a season. This would have contributed many opportunities to demystify the larger reality of the universe further afield of Polis, and still not diverted his eventual pairing with the "Ally" Artificial Intelligence and her cult of "the City of Light".

2. I would have perhaps preferred the use of a clever ruse of some kind that would have allowed for the Finn Collins character to go into exile rather than face death. Likewise, this would have allowed for his character to move beyond the immediate area, and used his character to explore the world further, opening up new story-lines. But, saying that, his demise is no deal breaker.

3. I'm not sure if the payoff for destroying the drop-ship under the control of former Chancellor Diana Sydney's mutineers was worth the bother. Sure, it damaged the Ark and sped their road to a dramatic decision, but any number of other calamities could have been used to replace that. Likewise, the reveal that it was brought down by Mount Weather was a minor plot point that merely supported Raven's much later discovery that Mount Weather possessed jamming technology. In my opinion, it would have been far more interesting had Sydney's group landed intact elsewhere and, like Pike's Farm Station, cultivated a very different relationship with the Grounders and served as yet another radical story variable.

4. I would have preferred that there was a verbally stated openness to more fluid attitudes regarding sexual orientation from the beginning of the series, rather than have it seem, in the second season, that characters who previously presented no interest in changing their gender preference suddenly are presented as bisexual or homosexual. Seems a little too political and virtue signalling to me, or shamelessly catering to fan service. But, hey, it is what it is.

5. Though I really liked season four, maybe even more than season three, I had some disconnect with the radioactive "death wave" that was presented as capable of destroying the rest of life on earth. If we can imagine a wave with that level of destructive capability, then why, oh why, would it only take five years for the surface of the earth to be survivable again. Once it was mentioned that the "fish and insect populations had started to die off", we're already talking about a Permian Era like extinction event. The ecosystem would be thoroughly beyond self-repair and it would take millions of years to recover. Generally, though it is speculative, the science usually works out on The 100 (especially with some genetic mutation cheats), and the show is overall pretty much realistic aside from that.

6. Lastly, I wish that it was explained, even briefly, in the last episodes of season four as to the reason why the laboratory / Ally's house on the island was not a suitable place to ride out the death wave. Mind you, I didn't need anyone to have done so, just that I wish it was explained why the environment was not suitable as a shelter. For instance; Murphy: "Why can't we just stay here?", Raven: "That would be impossible, the rocket's venting system will allow too much radiation in. It'll toast us in hours." Viola.   

While The 100 lies somewhere in-between The Walking Dead's catharsis inclusion paradigm and Game of Thrones third person detachment, it is nevertheless an intriguing and relentless action-packed ride into a fully dystopian future. It is also one in in which we can only sit back and hope that at least a few of the people we have come to know and admire will somehow survive through it. 

My bet is on Murphy.

Enjoy Season Five.

Till next time.

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