A Brazilian Thriller That Exposes the Sinister Side of Meritocracy

I don’t like to dwell on the relationship between the past eighty-something days of the new Trump Administration and the exponential rise in my TV consumption, but it would be disingenuous to deny that there’s a correlation. The impulse to retreat from reality, even when its absurdity increasingly threatens to outstrip fiction, might have contributed to my recent decision to binge-watch the Brazilian sci-fi drama “3%,” a Netflix original series whose first season was released last November. Set in a postapocalyptic future, the show, which has been renewed for a second season, due out later this year, seems initially of a breed with its more glossy teen-dystopia cousins “Divergent” and “The Hunger Games.” But, in the course of eight episodes, it proved to be a darker, grittier show than I’d expected, and one that resonates in uncomfortable ways with our dystopian American present. (So much for escapism.)

“3%” begins in the world of the ninety-seven per cent, where an unexplained catastrophe has ravaged most of the world, referred to only as the Inland, and mutated what remains into ruinous, crime-ridden slums. The only hope for a better life lies in an idyllic island in the Atlantic Ocean, known as the Offshore, where abundance and egalitarianism reign. To gain admission to the coveted paradise, twenty-year-olds on the mainland must submit to the Process, a battery of stress tests that assesses their emotional, cognitive, and physical aptitudes. The competition is pitiless; only three per cent pass muster each year, while the rest barely manage to subsist.

The series was created by the Brazilian writer Pedro Aguilera and directed by a team that includes César Charlone, the cinematographer who earned an Oscar nomination for his work on the 2002 movie “City of God.” It’s no coincidence that São Paulo, where “3%” was filmed, consistently ranks among the world’s most unequal cities, or that Brazil as a whole is racked by the kind of corruption and abysmal public policies that reinforce the country’s extreme hierarchy of haves and have-nots. The rich traverse the skies in private jets, while the poor struggle in favelas, the shantytowns that have come to symbolize the city’s impoverished. It’s the kind of disparity that’s played out to varying degrees all over the world in recent decades, not least in the U.S., where those in the top one per cent earn an average of over a million dollars a year, more than three times as much as they did in 1980. Americans in the bottom fifty per cent, on the other hand, earn an average salary of sixteen thousand dollars, a number that hasn’t budged in over three decades.

“3%” isn’t only interested in pointing out the obvious. Instead, it offers up a thriller-paced portrayal of the morally…

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