In times like these, a good dystopian hellscape is hard to find. OK, that statement does sound like nonsense at first: from The Handmaid’s Tale sweeping the Emmy awards, to the ungodly sums being shoveled towards projects like Netflix’s Altered Carbon and Amazon’s Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, to the ever-expanding relevance of Black Mirror — not to mention, you know, reality — dystopian hellscapes are plentiful. Many of them are beautifully crafted, profound, and haunting — but damn, if current depressing conditions aren’t making them harder and harder to watch. As I’ve written before about The Handmaid’s Tale, the genre’s most affecting stories have always been highly concentrated, discrete doses of horror. Drag on too long, finding new ways to keep the misery going, and you can lose viewers simply because you’ve depressed them too much.
3%, a Netflix-produced Brazilian thriller series that recently dropped its second season, is one exception to this trend. It manages to buck many of the genre’s biggest narrative pitfalls, making this underrated series one of the most diverse, addictive, and refreshing dystopian stories of its era.
The show’s premise is familiar, if not downright cliché: It takes place in a future São Paulo not far removed from some of the most crowded, impoverished favelas of today’s Brazil. Every year, children of the slums who have recently turned 20 can volunteer to take part in their society’s time-honored, highly anticipated tradition: an elaborate series of physical and psychological challenges known as the Process. The Process exists to separate the wheat from the chaff; only the top 3% of each class — those who possess the “merit” required to pass all the Process’s tests — can win the ultimate prize: a new life on the Offshore, a technologically and environmentally engineered island paradise where inhabitants live out the rest of their lives in total comfort, abundance, and harmony.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, such extreme economic inequality has not gone unchallenged. A rebel network calling itself the Cause (a Causa, if you’re watching in the original Portuguese) has grown in the shadows over the years, sabotaging the Offshore’s Process whenever possible. The so-called “pure meritocracy” of the Process — nevermind the extremely subjective criteria it involves — has earned the Offshore elite a lot of goodwill, and thus the Cause a lot of contempt, among mainlanders, all Process rejects who train and hype up their children so they might one day “have a better life.” It has become the basis for the dominant religion, a Puritanical faith tied to the “Founding Couple” who engineered the Offshore, that assures its followers that the most worthy chosen ones will find salvation among the Three Percent.
Among the Cause’s guerilla strategies is convincing young Process recruits to join the Cause in advance, establishing themselves as moles. It’s a serious undertaking, as one protagonist, Michele, learns: not only must they be good enough (and ruthless enough) to earn a place among the Three Percent, but they must also then work to blow up the paradise they’ve just legally “earned.” As the show progresses, it becomes clear that changing an unequal world isn’t as easy when the spoils of the rich become an accessible alternative.
It’s a premise that smacks strongly of existing YA dystopias like The Hunger Games or Maze Runner, in which young people are forced by institutions and ruthless adults to compete against one another against impossibly unfair odds. But the irresistibility of the show lies its execution rather than its novelty. From its diverse and savagely talented cast to its interest in character development and empathy over mind-bending sci-fi concepts, 3% is far more effective — and addictive — in this era than most of its predecessors and current rivals in the dystopian space.
The series’ first season, released in 2016, followed a group of candidates through the Process, Hunger Games-style. Among them are ambivalent Cause fighter Michele, the cheater Rafael, the earnestly determined Fernando, the standoffish genius Joana, and the entitled “legacy” kid Marco. Many of them are severely underestimated — Fernando is paraplegic, Joana is a sour street thief nobody likes, and Rafael only succeeds by bending the rules — and by the end, all of them have been rudely awakened by the dark reality of the dream they’ve worked so relentlessly to achieve. Its second season explores what happens after the Process: the moral gray areas within both the Cause and the so-called paradise of the Offshore, the sedative nature of overwhelming privilege, and the often horrific reality behind the stories people tell themselves to sleep at night.
Despite their radically different — and constantly fluctuating — motivations, every character all the way down to tertiary support roles is so nuanced that they all demand your emotional investment. The Process puppetmaster Ezequiel is a monster until you learn his backstory; the “rich kid” Marco is just a cocky dick until you understand his family (though to be fair, he remains a cocky dick). Moles for the Cause flip-flop in their dedication as they’re seduced by the Process’s promise of a better life. The show takes care to depict the complex, lived realities of marginalized people, from dark-skinned women of color like Joana to people with disabilities like Fernando, without fanfare or voyeurism. (The cast also includes two trans women; their gender identities are never mentioned.) Everyone is human, and each of their choices crack open complex topics like toxic masculinity and neoconservative values with brutal plot twists and consequences for all.
In that Handmaid’s Tale conversation last month, I wrote that “the most effective [dystopian] horror often lies in all the gray areas … if the ‘in-group’ part of a dystopia doesn’t seem at least slightly attractive to you — even Fahrenheit 451 featured a world that actively was working to end inequality, just went about it in all the wrong ways — it’s probably not going to be that powerful a story.” On 3%, nothing is ever black and white, and this nuanced storytelling also ends up meaning that nothing is ever 100% terrible for anybody. Unlike the relentless misery of a show like The Handmaid’s Tale or early seasons of Black Mirror, there’s always hope or relief to be found somewhere in 3%’s narrative web at any given time.
Sometimes that relief is dangerous — the Offshore is seductively idyllic — which is part of what makes the show more compelling than its contemporaries. Unlike, say, Westworld, where outside factors constantly impinge on its smaller world, 3% is functionally self-contained. Whatever the rest of the world is up to, or whether people outside of São Paulo have opted for a similarly brutal solution to economic and environmental problems, is irrelevant: this narrative is so strong, its questions so uniquely fraught, that it doesn’t matter. It’s such a relevant metaphor that it approaches simple description of the real world, where economic inequality and Western bootstrapping gospel have created a sequestered, self-justifying paradise for the super-rich that the rest of us aspire to even as we resent it. In fact, perhaps 3% is too generous — after all, in real life, our odds are even worse.