How the CW's sci-fi series weathered a rocky launch to become an addictive drama that trends around the world

By Shirley Li
February 16, 2016 at 05:21 PM EST
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Eliza Taylor is used to being caked in mud or blood. Or both. Dirty and disheveled is practically the 26-year-old’s uniform: As Clarke Griffin, the resourceful heroine of The CW’s postapocalyptic thriller The 100, Taylor spends hours running through the forest hunting and being hunted. So when the production — now in its third season — abandoned the wilds surrounding Vancouver, venturing for the first time to the city streets, the actress was ready for something a little more civilized.

Things didn’t quite go her way. “Within about 10 minutes, a fan saw us. And then suddenly, there were 30 of them, and then 60 of them, holding up signs and screaming and crying,” Taylor recalls. “The funny thing is, we thought this would happen. Toward the end of season 2, we reckoned we would get a lot of new fans, and we were right! It just took a while for people to let go of what they thought the show was.”

RELATED: The 100: See how the characters changed over three seasons

As in, yet another doomsday drama for the teen set. When The 100, a takeoff on Kass Morgan’s book trilogy, arrived in March 2014, it debuted during the crest of the dystopian-YA wave. Divergent hit theaters the same week. Two Hunger Games films had already been crowned box office victors. So critics found the premise — 100 delinquent teens are blasted off from their spaceship sanctuary (dubbed the Ark) as the sacrificial lambs to test whether a nuclear-war-wasted Earth is inhabitable again — dismissable. Even exec producer Jason Rothenberg admits the early hours failed to land. “Frankly, our worst episodes are the pilot and episode 2,” he says. “I feel like, if not for those two episodes, our audience would have been so much bigger.”

Cate Cameron/The CW

But the first-time showrunner charted a new course after receiving a note from network president Mark Pedowitz. “I said, ‘Do not make what people perceive to be a CW-type show,’ ” Pedowitz remembers. “‘Make the version you want to make — the darker, grittier version.’ ” And that’s what Rothenberg did. In the fifth episode, he killed off hundreds of characters — and then twisted the knife by revealing they had been sacrificed for nothing. “Mark called and was like, ‘Amazing episode! You can go darker,’ ” Rothenberg says, laughing. “I said, ‘Mark! How much darker can you get?’ ”

A whole lot darker, it turns out. Rothenberg transformed The 100 into a grounded, gritty war drama rife with moral quandaries. Season 1 saw the suicide of a 12-year-old; season 2 added a desperate doctor harvesting bone marrow from innocents. And season 3’s new threat? A walking, talking artificial intelligence named Alie (Erica Cerra), whose offer to save the world entices some and terrifies others. “We like to set up impossible choices for our characters,” says Rothenberg. “How far can you go to save your people and still be heroic?”

Cate Cameron/The CW

When viewers began catching up on the new trajectory (season 2 hit Netflix last October, months before season 3’s premiere), the show’s popularity skyrocketed. According to Twitter, the season 3 bow on Jan. 21 racked up roughly 10 times as many tweets as the series premiere and saw #The100 trend worldwide. Critics started paying attention — and respect — as well, leading to even more viewers. “Every day I see dozens of tweets saying, ‘I binged the whole thing in a weekend,’ ” Rothenberg says. “The Netflix effect has been incredibly important.” It was all part of the plan. “We felt the series needed a midseason start to allow for the binges,” Pedowitz says. “That strategy has proven to be the correct one.”

Fans aren’t just cheering the drama’s dark twists; they’re also praising the way it’s pushing the envelope with a diverse cast and an openly bisexual lead, The CW’s first. Clarke’s romance with Lexa (Fear the Walking Dead’s Alycia Debnam-Carey), a leader of the Grounders, spawns fervent hashtagging (the battle cry: #Clexa) in particular. “If we can take anything good from the apocalypse, it’s that we live in a world where gender and sexuality and race isn’t an issue,” Taylor says. “There’s the greater issue of survival.”

RELATED VIDEO: The 100 season 3 trailer

The only “problem” with the show’s newfound popularity? Keeping up with all the attention. Star Bob Morley, who plays Bellamy, has given up on reading everything he’s sent — “It’s easier for me to just focus on work,” he explains — but Taylor tracks her online presence. “In six months [my follower count] had gone up by about 50,000. That was crazy!” she says. “It’s made me more careful. You have to censor yourself.” Good thing the chaos of social media doesn’t exist on postapocalyptic Earth.

The 100 airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.

A version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1403-1404, on newsstands now or available digitally here.

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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