Note: this is a spoiler-free review of the show.
In the future, year 104, the world is divided into to two classes: the poor in the slums, and the rich who live in the Offshore. Every year, all 20-year-old citizens from the slums compete to live in the Offshore. “In The Offshore, all are given equal opportunity to advance.” Proclaims the charismatic leader, Ezequiel. Only 3% of the contestants, candidates, will get to live in Utopia. However, The System is threatened by The Cause. Maybe there was something lost in translation (show is shot in Brazilian Portuguese), but those are the most unoriginal names. Anyway, 3% follows five candidates (Michele, Fernando, Joana, Marco, Rafael) in their quest to become the lucky 3%, and Ezequiel (João Miguel). He’s the almighty Supervisor, who might be working with The Cause.
As an ensemble show, 3% follows a Lost format. Each episode focuses on one character of the ensemble, with flashbacks, and their journey through The Process. Michele (Bianca Comparato), is the secret resistance fighter. Marco (Rafael Lozano) is the vain and relatively well-off candidate. He considers it his birthright to make it to The Offshore, the rest of his family has. Rafael (Rodolfo Valente) is the trickster-type. Fernando (Michel Gomes) is the sweet, paraplegic, who befriends Michele. Joana (Vaneza Oliveira) is the lone wolf.
You also see elements of the Hunger Games, Elysium, Survivor. Candidates must outwit, outlast, and outplay each other to prove themselves worthy to the Administrators. They are given “tests”, like assembling blocks quickly to show high IQ; and successfully making across a tunnel while being dosed with hallucinogens, to prove perseverance, maybe?
From the beginning, the show presents The Process as an invasive and dehumanizing ordeal that only proves the candidates’ willingness to submit to the system. In the pilot, they are put through a questionnaire that is invasive and harsh. It is like a job interview, psychological evaluation, and lie-detector test. They ask a black woman how often she washes her hair. Fernando’s disability is mocked. Michele is hit on by the interviewer and mocked for her attachment to a sentimental object. “Are you worth being saved?” They ask. They are really asking what are the candidates willing to give up. The ones who pass the first stage, must disavow all ties to their former lives.
Despite rigged nature of The Process, some characters are willing to defend this system, like Fernando, the paraplegic who has near-religious faith in the system. The most optimistic character of the show. He firmly believes in the system, and believes in its mission for good, even when confronted of the reality of its unfairness. He believes in self-reliance, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It is admirable, but also frustrating to Michele, who tries to get him to see the injustice. The candidates know they are being watched, yet this doesn’t prevent anyone, Rafael mostly, from cheating. No one is eliminated for cheating. They are eliminated for giving the wrong answers or not completing the test on time.
This is not light escapism. In fact, you may be wishing for escapism from this show. Given the current political climate, this is a show that plays to the worst fears of a totalitarian government, built on ideals of equality and self-reliance. This show might be better if watched once a day, like a miniseries event. One problem is that the 3% is depressing. The demoralizing tests are, well, demoralizing after a while. The subplot of Ezequiel being watched by his superiors is the least interesting part of the show. The Cause is barely mentioned after the pilot. Michele is pushed to the back burner soon. It’s not that all shows have to be upbeat and positive. But for a show that presents a resistance and a revenge story within the pilot, it doesn’t show much interest in either of those. All of 3% eight episodes are streaming on Netflix.