By Jeff Jensen
Updated January 21, 2016 at 04:39 PM EST
Cate Cameron/The CW

The 100

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It’s easy to underestimate The CW if you’re a snooty adult like me. So much trendy juvenile escapism, so little variation in aesthetic style—so cute, so clean, so Vancouver, B.C.—that everything scans the same. But over the past two years, the networklet has matured with more unique and sophisticated fare like iZombie, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and The 100, an absorbing dystopian sci-fi/fantasy about the morality of survival. With its third season, the show keeps getting bigger, bleaker, and better.

Inspired by the Kass Morgan book series and set in a nuke-blasted future reclaimed by nature, The 100 began with a pack of bratty teens—jailed residents of an overcrowded space station called The Ark—banished to Earth to either repopulate it or die. From this premise, showrunner Jason Rothenberg has evolved the characters and textured the world with impressive care and imagination. The work of surviving and society-building has matured or hardened (or both) those who haven’t been killed by the struggle, while others have transformed through contact and conflict with The Grounders, a generic (and pejorative) term for a collection of post-apocalyptic warrior clans. If there’s a central figure, it’s Clarke (Eliza Taylor), co-leader of the 100 and daughter of The Ark’s chief medical officer (Paige Turco; yes, there be adults here). Her sexy, fraught bond with Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey), commander of the 12 Clans, is arguably the show’s most compelling relationship. I’m ignoring multitudes; the scope is vast.

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Complex ethical and political quandaries have elevated the drama. In last season’s well-earned finale shocker, Clarke and co-chief Bellamy (Bob Morley)—fogged by war and bias and convinced they were locked in a no-win, kill-or-be-killed scenario—and made a ruthless choice to save their people. The unfolding fallout in season 3 expands the world and yields juicy new quagmires and resonant themes of xenophobia, terrorism, and religion. Should the Ark folks join Lexa’s confederacy of clans? Should they accept or fear protection from a peacekeeping force of Grounders who might want them dead? These questions play out with an election looming and intrigue transpiring far away that promises to complicate everything: ex-chancellor Jaha’s (Isaiah Washington) strange relationship with a powerful artificial intelligence who may have caused the apocalypse.

You wish The 100 had budget, time and talent to produce grander verisimilitude. Still, the vision shines through, and the cast works hard to serve increasingly complex characters and relationships. Taylor, for one, wears Clarke’s brokenness with greater confidence to match her new crimson locks. You see it in her clashes with a new foil, the bounty hunter Roan (Zach McGowan), and in her fraught intimacies. Debnam-Carey shows bolder shades as Lexa fends off conspiracies and pines for renewed connection with Clarke. Don’t let the Teen Beat sheen fool you: The 100 – always above-average YA pop — has ripened and toughened into one of TV’s best Big Saga serials. A–

Episode Recaps

The 100

After a nuclear apocalypse, a group of people who have been living in space return to Earth—and quickly learn they’re not alone.
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  • TV Show
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  • 6
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