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The 100 Was the Rare Teen Drama That Treated Adults as More Than Buzzkills

For once, the 'invisible parent' was nowhere to be found.
  • Paige Turco, Lindsey Morgan, and Greyston Holt in The 100 (Photo: Everett Collection)
    Paige Turco, Lindsey Morgan, and Greyston Holt in The 100 (Photo: Everett Collection)

    Looks like Skaikru was right — we are meeting again, on the 10th anniversary of the premiere of The 100, your favorite teen show that dared to ask: Does humanity even deserve to survive?

    The 100 debuted on the CW on March 19, 2014, another YA drama, but this time with a post-apocalyptic twist. Based on Kass Morgan’s best-selling books, the series kicks off with quite the compelling premise: 97 years after a nuclear apocalypse has rendered Earth uninhabitable, the last remaining members of the human race are living up in a giant space station called the Ark. When leaders on the Ark realize that, due to a malfunction, they are running out of oxygen, they decide to send 100 juvenile delinquents down to the ground to see if it’s inhabitable. Once on the ground, the teens learn several things rather quickly: The ground is very much inhabitable, they are not alone there, and the biggest threat to their lives might actually be each other. They quickly go from “no adults, let’s party” to murdering in record time.

    What starts off as a post-apocalyptic survival story quickly expands into much more. Before you know it, there’s war with the Grounders and mind drives and nightblood and evil A.I. and something called “praimfaya” (a second nuclear apocalypse!). There’s a little cannibalism and a century of cryosleep and a crucifixtion, a dabbling in genocide, traveling to other planets via stones, and then people turn into little balls of light and it’s called transcendence. If you haven’t seen The 100 you might think this list is the rantings of a madwoman, but this isn’t even the half of it. The show’s mythology, world, and general plot grew wildly convoluted by the end of its seven-season run.

    It’s not controversial to say that the first three seasons of The 100 are easily its best. Even then, the series was full on sci-fi, with its own vocabulary and a plot that called for a near constant suspension of disbelief. The early seasons work so well because creator Jason Rothenberg makes the series’ two genres — sci-fi and teen drama — benefit from one another. The teen drama feels new because of the sci-fi, the sci-fi feels more grounded thanks to the human drama of it all. Rothenberg and the series’ writers made smart choices upfront on which teen drama tropes to infuse in their violent, dark story — a love triangle in which one corner comes down to Earth on a rescue mission in a DIY space pod only to find the other two corners are sleeping together? Yes, please! — and which to avoid to make their specific story work best.

    Nowhere is that more felt than how The 100 uses the adults in its teen story. It would’ve been so easy to sideline the main adult characters, Dr. Abby Griffin (Paige Turco), Marcus Kane (Henry Ian Cusick), Thelonious Jaha (Isaiah Washington), and even to a certain extent, grounder Indra (Adina Porter) and pull the ol’ “invisible parent” trope many other teen soaps deploy to appeal to their intended (young) audiences. You can easily imagine a version of this show in which the parents never arrive on Earth or, they do but are one-dimensional, made to simply be devices to help the story lines and arcs of the younger characters. Instead, The 100 allowed its main adult characters to be fully developed, to have story lines both with and outside of the youths, and it’s what holds this bonkers story together.

    It’s surely a question that arises when all teen dramas are getting off the ground — how involved should the parents be? To put the YA stories and their attractive, youthful cast at the forefront, and appeal to their demo, many shows eschew well-rounded depictions of authority figures or try to keep them to a minimum. Look at shows like Beverly Hills, 90210 — sure, Jim and Cindy Walsh (James Eckhouse and Carol Potter) were main characters at the beginning, but most of the other parents flew in and out of an episode or two to be an antagonist or provide conflict for their teen and then went on their way; even Jim and Cindy eventually got pushed out to make room for more young adult drama.

    Dawson’s Creek never did much to make its few parental figures feel like real, wholly developed people; Dawson’s (James Van Der Beek) mother Gail (Mary-Margaret Humes) cheats on his father Mitch (John Wesley Shipp) early on, but please name another one of their story lines (and you can’t say when Mitch gets killed off). Gram (Mary Beth Peil) is memorable, but she only pops in to service Jen’s (Michelle Williams) story — she’s not living a fully realized life in Capeside.

    For a more recent example, look to Outer Banks. The use of parents on that show is legitimately insane. The one “parent” with the most screen time, sweet lil’ Ward Cameron (Charles Esten), is the show’s main antagonist and is basically Soap Opera Villain 101 — there is no nuance, no development. (That’s not actually a knock, Ward Cameron is easily one of the top three reasons to watch this show). The other parents are so underdeveloped they’re practically non-existent. John B’s (Chase Stokes) dad is obsessed with treasure, Pope’s (Jonathan Daviss) dad is supportive but concerned, Kiara’s (Madison Bailey) parents are angry and very into the whole Pogue/Kook division (if you don’t know, please don’t ask) in the Outer Banks. It’s a prime example of “the invisible parent.”

    That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a tonal choice. Outer Banks is worlds away from The 100, but they do share some similarities. When you get down to it, they’re both action-adventure shows about surviving some truly off-the-wall realities. They both focus on exploring how the youths handle those extreme conditions while also grappling with some other very coming-of-age lessons (first love, heartbreak, grief, that thing where the dad of the girl you’re dating tries to kill you at sea with a harpoon gun). Outer Banks seems to relish in going off the rails; the wilder the better, and a fully formed adult character would throw a wrench in the show’s entire deal.

    The 100 chose a different path in order to more effectively convey the specific story it was trying to tell. The series is more about exploring moral and ethical dilemmas one faces as a leader, making hard choices and having to live with those consequences, and making terrible choices and having to live with those consequences. It’s about living with guilt and trauma and the long-lasting effects of war. It’s about grappling with that aforementioned question — how do we save humanity, and is it even worth saving?

    All of those heady themes are woven into the younger casts’ character arcs, but they become even more poignant when reflected in the journeys of the adults. Abby and Marcus especially offer a level of depth to the idea of living with your sins that you wouldn’t get with just the teens. The fact that there is blood on everyone’s hands, that adults don’t have the answers, that they are not the unflagging moral compasses here, speaks to what The 100 is trying to say. Jaha, the former Chancellor of the Ark turned A.I. pusher, gets one of the strangest story lines before being written off in Season 5, but he offers a look at the lengths a parent will go to assuage their grief over the loss of a child — a look at grief you just couldn’t get from someone younger going through it.

    Fully developing these characters by both giving them their own story lines and weaving them into the stories of the younger set makes them instantly multifunctional to the story (and multidimensional): They’re both their own flawed characters — lovers, villains, heroes, regular ol’ survivors trying to get by — and can act as authority figures, and many times obstacles, for the generation behind them to work around. The 100 allows them to be all of those things, and because of that the story is richer.

    Look at Abby: She spends the series grappling with her own questionable (sometimes just plain wrong, very bad) decisions and her guilt on her own terms, but also with how they affect her relationship with her daughter, protagonist Clarke (Eliza Taylor). Abby turned in her husband, Clarke’s father, to be executed; she was among the leaders of the Ark who said “Yeah, okay, let’s send those kids down to the ground in secret where they will most likely die.” Her relationship with her daughter, one of those kids, is, um, complicated. It’s also one of the most compelling aspects of the series, but more important, one of the most relatable and grounding, too. You may not be able to totally wrap your head around mind drives and nightblood, but you’ll get a complicated mother-daughter relationship.

    The same can be said for Abby and Marcus’ love story. It is one of the most constant, well-developed relationships on the show (Henry Ian Cusick is very swoony!), one that develops over the six seasons those characters survived on the show. Their love story is a through line, an anchor, even as the mythology of the show spins us further and further away from where it started. It can’t be a coincidence that our three main adult characters are not around in Season 7, and that season is the pits (at the very least, there’s a case to be made!).

    It’s certainly not necessary for every YA show to make so much space for the adults in the room, but looking back, 10 years later, it feels like it was necessary for The 100. One of the smartest choices the creative team ever made was to pay just as much attention to Abby, Marcus, and Jaha as they did kids on that show. It added a level of complexity, as well as some doses of reality, that a show so rooted in some mind-bending sci-fi needed in order to work, even a little bit. And watching it all these years later, it’s nice to be reminded that the seeds of those characters and their relationships were there from the very beginning. The 100 might question if humanity is worth saving, but it never questioned the usefulness of those characters and it was a stronger show for it.

    Maggie Fremont is a freelance writer covering all things TV. Her work can be found on Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, and more.

    TOPICS: The 100, The CW, Teen Dramas