“If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.” —George Monbiot
These are dark days for American meritocracy, if such a thing ever existed. Research has declared the U.S. an oligarchy, social mobility is vanishing before our eyes, and a hate-stuffed jack-o’-lantern is headed into the Oval Office because enough voters decided they’d rather have a wrecking ball than an experienced technocrat as president. All of which begs the eternal question: What do the few who do make the leap from prole to aristo have that the rest of us don’t?
It remains to be seen how the profound pessimism unleashed by Trump’s election will affect the current fad for dystopian fiction, but I wouldn’t mind if more followed in the footsteps of 3%, Netflix’s new socially conscious postapocalyptic thriller (available now). Like most Brazilian productions that find a significant audience here (City of God, Elite Squad, last year’s critically acclaimed The Second Mother), the eight-part series focuses on the way inequality warps institutions and relationships, often toward violence. Considering how Brazil tends to top lists of the world’s most inequitable societies — with its one-percenters owning 48 percent of that country’s wealth — it’s no wonder that the consequences of economic injustice are a national obsession there. Given that our one-percenters own a smaller-but-still-whopping 42 percent of our wealth, those consequences should be a perpetual anxiety here, too.
The uneven but compelling 3% argues for hemispheric resonance by making a farce out of — and mining terrific suspense from — the myth of deserved affluence, the obvious corollary of which is deserved poverty. Indebted or not to The Hunger Games, the show shares a great deal with the blockbuster quadrilogy, featuring a group of 20-year-olds who compete to become the elite three-percenters who earn a place on an island paradise called The Offshore that’s unreachable by the impoverished mainland. Unlike Katniss’s tournament, murder is optional here, though still a regular part of the game. The sole major disqualification is hesitation about “passing” The Process, as the game is known — the victory of which includes leaving behind everyone and everything a contestant’s ever known. Surprisingly, it’s a demand that wheelchair-using Fernando (Michel Gomes) has the most trouble with. He’s spent so much time learning to accept his disability that the gift of walking that The Offshore dangles in front of him seems a threat to his core sense of self.
The first half is far more compelling than the latter, as Orange Is the New Black–type flashbacks to one character’s past per installment help us root for Fernando, orphans Michele (Bianca Comparato) and Joana (Vaneza Oliveira), and even the cheating Rafael (Rodolfo Valente). Administered by the creepy Ezequiel (João Miguel), The Process is both tense and ridiculous (in a fun way) for the seemingly nonsensical hoops the participants are forced to jump through: logic puzzles, induced hallucinations, staying alive while a pack of bigger boys reenact Lord of the Flies by thumping their chests and practically screaming their Übermenschen status. Even as 3% veers increasingly toward convolution, with little indication as to which qualities make a participant deserve to win the lottery, so to speak, it stays gripping for that reason, too. On The Offshore, the contestants have been promised, everything is fair. So they can’t help succumbing to ballooning doubt as they realize that the game-masters don’t care about morality, intelligence, physical fitness, or any other attribute they might reasonably look for. Scrutinized by a fault-finding rival (Viviane Porto), Ezequiel reassures his colleagues that there’s a reason why some rule-breakers are allowed to progress while others are chopped in two.
The second half is predicated on a twist apparent from the start: The Offshore is also a dystopia, albeit with beautiful clothes and serene beaches. Stealing the spotlight from the contestants are the mystery behind Ezequiel’s forbidden visits to the mainland and a revolutionary plot to overthrow The Process and, ultimately, The Offshore. The surfeit of story lines means that most of them fail to resolve satisfactorily, but 3% at least offers a historically informed if brutally practical prescription for defeating inequality. If the ending is anticlimactic, at least it’s honest, too, about the probability that our cruelest deeds sometimes come from our best intentions.