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3% and The Thinning are this year’s best and worst take on dystopian meritocracy

It’s like the SAT, except it kills you

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One of my favorite Twitter accounts is @DystopianYA, a parody of young-adult science fiction by Observer culture writer Dana Schwartz. Its tweets are a mix of the bland platitudes, clichéd rebellion, and on-the-nose metaphors we associate with bad YA dystopia — our old teen angst dressed up in neologisms. "You must complete trials in order to move into adulthood,” reads one of the more popular tweets. “They're called 'the SATs' — no wait sorry I meant 'The Trials.' Yeah that's it."

This tweet essentially describes the plot of two recent projects: The Thinning, an original movie produced for YouTube Red, and 3%, a Brazilian science-fiction series produced for Netflix. Where YA poster child The Hunger Games was about coercion and reality TV, The Thinning and 3% are both about meritocracy gone wrong, set in worlds where a single cutthroat test determines your place in society, or even your right to exist.

The idea of teenagers stuck in a deadly competition, or of a cruel society based on testing, goes back decades — you can link both projects loosely back to books as disparate as Stephen King’s The Long Walk and Ayn Rand’s Anthem. (There’s also a more directly similar recent novel series called The Testing.) But while The Thinning is remarkable simply for being such a bad take on the formula, 3% turns it into something that goes beyond its clichés — in fact, it’s one of my favorite new sci-fi series of 2016.

The Thinning takes place in a very near future where the UN has ordered all countries to reduce their population by 5 percent every year. This would be a bog-standard dystopian premise, except that the film uses it to set up a weirdly specific, completely absurd allegory for American standardized testing. Where other countries opt to limit childbirth or kill the elderly, the US turns its education system into a eugenics program by holding an annual K-12 exam and killing the “parasites” who fail it. The male lead’s father is a Texas governor running for president on an aggressive pro-Thinning education platform.

Welcome to the future, where Texas excels in UN-mandated death panels

This Purge-esque jingoism adds a little entertainment to The Thinning, but it's also such a mess that I’m not even positive that plot description is right. The tests seem like a nationwide ordeal, but one speech suggests that they’re somehow unique to Texas, which would make this future even more bizarre — I might buy Texas spearheading a push for UN-mandated death panels, but not ones that seem like such a death-knell for high school football. (If this is true, we also never learn how the rest of the country is reducing its population.)

The film’s apparently minuscule budget turns its 20-minutes-from-now Austin into a surreal future-present where everyone speaks with a bland middle-American accent, the black-masked thugs tasked with murdering children can’t even get guns (in Texas?), and the only computers are prominently marked BlackBerry tablets, which unsurprisingly turn out to be pivotal in a dark conspiracy. Did BlackBerry pay for product placement that made it look evil? Is the movie set in an alternate 2011? Or did somebody just find a dusty crate of leftover hardware behind the bargain bin at Best Buy?

You know the tests are evil, because they’re given on BlackBerry tablets

More importantly, though, The Thinning doesn't know what to make of its own premise. The plot hinges on the governor swapping his son’s failing grade with that of an overachieving female classmate, kicking off a long string of action sequences and a milquetoast romance. But the filmmakers can’t seem to decide whether the test is supposed to be coldly sociopathic or openly hypocritical. In a world where testing poorly gets you killed, not just relegated to a safety school, there’s a strangely stereotypical sprinkling of class clowns and slackers — without any of the absurdism that might make that seem like satire instead of poor writing. We learn just enough details to start wondering why so little has changed in the future, when taking 5 percent of the total population from one age demographic would create a huge generation gap. And that's not even touching on the final twist that renders these questions almost pointless.

Where The Thinning tries for specificity and ends up with nonsense, 3% is one of the cleverest takes yet on the dystopian-deathmatch genre. It's set in a futuristic Brazil where economic inequality has put 97 percent of the population in mainland slums, living only for the hope of joining the lucky 3 percent — who are taken to an almost mystical-sounding island called the Offshore, after passing a series of brutal tests known as the Process. (Yes, there are a lot of capitalized nouns in this series. It sounds better in Portuguese.)

Finding the best people is less important than convincing them that the system works

Most stories about deadly tests struggle with the fact that their supposedly logical trials are absurdly convoluted and gratuitous. In 3%, though, that's the whole point. The Process is a mashup of college-admissions interviews, Silicon Valley problem-solving tests, and sadistic psychological experiments, directed by a soft-spoken but unpredictable proctor named Ezequiel. They're the culmination of every selection process that's so restrictive it's almost random, and where being able to convince yourself that the system works is more important than considering whether it actually does — or what "working" means in the first place. As Ezequiel puts it, "You create your own merit.”

3% makes it clear that tests are there not just to sort, but to reassure their creators that they’re in control, and that their control is just. This plays out on every level. In the slums, getting to the Offshore is outright religious: the father of one applicant, Fernando, is a preacher who extols the Process as a spiritual journey. Once the Process has begun, viewers and applicants alike are constantly kept guessing about whether something is an unforeseen complication, or just another part of the test.

At the same time, the Process isn’t arbitrary enough that we can safely discount it as misguided. Unlike The Thinning — or the famously high-stakes rote tests of Japan or Korea, which 3% evokes — it’s a clear measure of emotional intelligence and problem-solving, albeit in a twisted way. The tests are occasionally bloody, although that’s supposedly always accidental. But for the most part, they’re things we’d find nominally acceptable — like the starting interviews, where inscrutable interviewers judge the quality of desperate applicants’ characters in a few tense minutes. By the time things work up to a fevered inadvertent replication of the Stanford Prison Experiment, it doesn’t seem like that great a leap.

By the time we start approaching the Stanford Prison Experiment, it doesn’t seem like that great a leap

The overarching question of season one, more than whether any one applicant will pass, is exactly how much control Ezequiel has, and what he wants to do with it. At times, he seems all-powerful, capable of engineering any situation to his advantage. But his position is perilous, especially after an ambitious investigator is sent to dig into his dark past. It’s never clear how much of what he says about himself or the Offshore is true, and how much is invented to manipulate candidates. That’s especially true when it comes to the Cause, a nebulous resistance group that seems suspiciously good at planting moles among the applicants.

The Cause is, if anything, more vaguely drawn than the Offshore. Several members and supporters appear in the first season, but we’re given barely any idea what they want, beyond an end to the Process, or how they plan to do it, beyond recruiting candidates to infiltrate it. That’s partly because the season is so squarely focused on the minutiae of the Process, but it’s also because resistance seems nearly impossible. The Offshore isn’t overtly oppressing the rest of the country, it’s just abandoned it, retreating to a place that genuinely can’t accommodate everyone. The Process isn’t the problem, just a symptom of a horrifically broken society. It’s possible that getting rid of it would only sever the last links of social mobility between rich and poor.

3% isn’t the kind of young-adult series that focuses on young teenagers. Process applicants seem to be between 18 and 20. But it’s imported the genre’s openness toward characters who aren’t defined by gender clichés. Female applicants are allowed to have trauma that isn’t rooted in sexual victimhood: one is scarred by an act of violence she committed, another is seeking vengeance for a murdered brother.

The Process isn’t the problem, just a symptom of it

At the same time, the cast isn’t drawn clearly into protagonists and disposable side characters the way young-adult fiction often is, and even the strongest applicants aren’t superhumanly tough or preternaturally beautiful. And in part simply because of its setting in Brazil, it avoids the most tone-deaf parts of dystopias like The Hunger Games, where science fiction is just developing-world disasters happening to well-groomed white Americans.

By the last of its eight episodes, 3% weakens under the weight of its own machinations. We’re led through so many surprise Process tests that it becomes almost disappointing when something isn’t a twist, and the Offshore is mostly left as a mystery for the next season, which (fortunately) has already been green-lit. But even when the series falters, it treats us to a story that exemplifies the best of teenage dystopia, and transcends the worst.

Both 3% and The Thinning eschew detailed worldbuilding in favor of exaggerating and exploring the dark side of success and competition. As funny as @DystopianYA’s tweets are, recasting reality in new, absurd ways is a core job of science fiction; from a certain angle, the SATs are already terrifyingly dystopian, even if they won’t kill you. But The Thinning’s creators failed to think through just how big a change they’re actually imagining. And 3% shows just enough of a new reality that it leaves viewers wanting more.