Now in its third season, CW's little post-apocalyptic engine that could, The 100, has developed into a real critical darling. This show that seemed at first like a generic YA story full of pretty people making out with each other over the ruins of a dead civilization transformed itself into one of the most original and best shows on television.
There are plenty of networks out there grabbing for that coveted youth demographic which YA genre novels appeals to so well. Shadowhunters, The Shannara Chronicles, Teen Wolf...this is a trend that is only going to grow with time.
Here's The 100's initial premise -- a group of 100 troubled twenty-somethings are shuttled from an ark in space holding what remains of the human race centuries after a nuclear event back down to Earth to see if it's inhabitable again. It's not exactly the most original pitch you'll ever hear, and it could very easily devolve into who's screwing who. So, why is The 100 gaining steam so quickly? What specifically makes people love it and what can future shows learn? Let's take a look.
DO NOT FIXATE ON LOVE TRIANGLES
When The 100 started, its writers definitely seemed like they wanted to start by trodding on familiar ground before getting experimental. One of the most predictable things they did was establish a love triangle between three characters -- Clarke, Finn, and Raven. Clarke and Finn fall in love once they arrive on Earth, while Raven and Finn used to date on the ark. When Raven gets down to Earth later, voila -- instant drama!
It was terrible. Recapping/reviewing The Shannara Chronicles, I've talked about this many times -- when you've got actually story to tell but you fixate on "but what about everyone's boners" garbage, it does a disservice to your characters and their narrative. The Clarke, Finn, Raven stuff didn't buttress what was happening on The 100; it got in the way.
Which is exactly why the writers dropped it. But they didn't just drop the love triangle, they transitioned it into a story about the consequences that come from obsessing over love. It's never played in a meta way, but Finn's fixation on Clarke and Raven's frustration with that have real, long-term consequences. As The 100 moved away from that love triangle, they parlayed elements of it into much more interesting and complex conflict.
But The 100 doesn't abandon love stories. No, what The 100 learned (and what other show writers should take note of) is that how romantic feelings can charge existing conflict rather than distract from it. Clarke is still in a love triangle of sorts, but it's never the focus and, when it's alluded to, it has farther reaching implications than just "will they or won't they."
LGBT PEOPLE EXIST IN A POST-APOCALYPTIC SOCIETY
Clarke Griffin is as close as The 100 gets to a lead protagonist. She is a leader, she is a woman who is a leader, she is an openly bisexual woman who is a leader. And the show doesn't just pay lip service to that fact. Lexa, the leader of the people who have lived on Earth the whole time, the Grounders, is an openly gay woman. And guess what, y'all? Clarke and Lexa got a thing going on. As I mentioned in the previous section, their relationship has a huge impact on the show. They've both killed each other's people, they've killed for each other, they've made sacrifices, and they've been patient and even kind because of they are, frankly, super into each other.
The 100's showrunner, Jason Rothenberg, has been pretty clear that, in the world of The 100, sexuality isn't a thing people have time to care about. There are new threats everywhere, so no one has time to say "Oh, no. You're a gay, tho!"
In our world, though, representation of sexuality does matter. It matters a lot. And appealing to young people means acknowledging that a lot of them are some flavor of queer. As time marches on, kids are more and more comfortable seeking out and understanding the full spectrum of their sexuality, so it's critical that they feel represented if you want them to actually watch your show.
PEOPLE OF COLOR ALSO EXIST IN A POST-APOCALYPTIC SOCIETY
If you haven't noticed, science-fiction and fantasy can often seem like white-dominated affairs. Again, if you watch something like The Shannara Chronicles, almost every character is light-skinned. And classic fantasy and sci-fi often treads in that direction. Which is ridiculous because skin color has very little bearing on whether or not you like genre stories.
I know it's a little crass to make a list of people of color on a show, but that's the quickest and most effective way to get this point across. Raven, Lincoln, Indra, Charles Pike, and Monty are all non-white characters who are main players in the ever-growing cast of The 100. That's more than almost any genre show or book I can think of. And just like with queer representation, I've encountered more young people of color who are obsessed with this show than almost any other.
The 100 might be post-apocalyptic, but it's showing us a world full of characters who look like every kind of person in the real world.
MEN WITHOUT SHIRTS ARE YOUR FRIEND
I hate to sound like a broken record, but people who consume YA are just as likely to be attracted to men as they are women. Lots of gay men and young girls are all about this specific subgenre and so it's a cool idea to maybe play up to that. Sure, the women they've cast are absolutely beautiful, but the men that get cast on shows like this are equally gorgeous most of the time.
If a show is going to show off how beautiful women are (and there's virtually no such thing as a show that doesn't) then follow the lead of The 100 and show off those men, too. Season 3 opens with Bellamy and Lincoln sparring while shirtless and it is...yeah. It is some good stuff, I tell you what. Sure, it's fan service, but it's also the kind of service that says, "I see you, people who want hot men taking off their clothes. We cool. Let's do this thing."
It's about acknowledging and catering to your whole audience.
SOCIAL MEDIA IS ALSO YOUR FRIEND
The 100 is very good at getting young people to watch their show, but they face the one, biggest challenge that every youth-oriented show must cope with -- ratings. The truth is, kids don't watch TV as it airs much these days. They stream or torrent their shows after the fact. And advertisers are still bent on this notion of Nielsen ratings -- who and how many people are making an appointment to watch a show as it goes out.
The best way to deal with that is to find new ways to engage with your audience. Multiple writers, actors, and designers from The 100 tweet extra details about new episodes of The 100 as they go out. They also retweet things that fans are getting excited about, helping to build a community of people who will watch new episodes as they air and not later.
It's working. The 100 has had better ratings this season than any year previous. And even if it wasn't a ratings game, it's exciting to see that the people behind the show are thrlled to geek out with the people watching the show. Even during filming, cast members will spontaneously start up a Periscope, giving attentive fans an extra glimpse into what's happening behind-the-scenes.
It's not enough to just have a good show any more; it's about collectively working to engage and market that show.
KILL CHARACTERS PEOPLE CARE ABOUT
It's hard to kill characters you like, but it's important with all stories, YA included. The 100 has a big cast, but that doesn't mean you just kill off people in the periphery. Game of Thrones understands that keeping people engaged means being willing to kill off even your main character.
The 100 does the same. In case you've only been watching some of the show, I don't want to spoil anything, but suffice it to say that main characters get bumped all the time. And those deaths aren't there just to shock audiences, either. When someone dies, there are always massive consequences. If any entire group, let's say, gets wiped out? There's a power vacuum that has to be dealt with. And things like that happen on The 100 a lot.
This comes back to the idea of incentivising people to watch episodes live -- if you wait, you might get spoiled or not get the chance to mourn with your fellow fans as a death occurs.
Plus, from a storytelling perspective, it's just so important to make it feel like there is no certainty. A safe audience is a bored audience.
BUILD YOUR WORLD AS BIG AS YOU CAN
Of all the things The 100 does well, this is arguably the most important of all.
It's easy to get lost in character moments when you're writing YA style stories. Young people like getting invested in how the characters they love or hate feel about things. And that can be great. Character investment is something every writer wants. But that's just one piece of a much larger whole.
The 100 has an enormous world that feels larger and deeper with each passing episode. And it does this with so many tiny details. For example, the Grounders have their own language. Every time we hear it, we are like children learning through repetition. And the show writers are very game to teach their audience this language. It seems simple, but having a language specific to your world gives that world substance, it makes it feel big and real.
Likewise, The 100 has incredible costumes, possibly the best on TV right now. Each costume tells the story of the world, of the people, of the specific character. Like Mad Max, The 100 understands that the Grounders are repurposing tools and clothing from a time long dead. But the costumes are far from uniform. The people who lived on the ark, the people who live in the forest, the people who live in a frozen tundra, they all dress differently. Yes, there's fashion here that makes the clothes exciting, but above all the clothes tell the story. I've said this many times before and I'll say it again here -- a good costume makes a good actor a great one. Costumes make a show's world real.
Sets do much the same and, again, The 100 excels here. Every set feels lived in, buildings tell us what kind of people might live in them. When a character picks up a weapon, the audience can trust that even that has some kind of story to it, some weight and meaning.
Language, clothes, sets --- these things can make or break a fictional world. When you know that people are getting tattoos in a language you invented in order to mourn the loss of someone they loved in the real world? That's when you know you've got something. And that's what The 100 has achieved.