If Netflix’s algorithms know that you’re a “Hunger Games” fan, you might have noticed the appearance of the new Brazilian drama “3%” in your recommended series queue. The eight-episode first season, created by Pedro Aguilera, depicts a dystopian world where 3 percent of an impoverished society have the opportunity to ascend to a better life… if they survive the selection process.
It’s not quite the kill-or-be-killed world that Katniss Everdeen sought to tear down, but there’s no denying the similarities between the two properties (as well as the flood of “Hunger Games” imitators that flooded the market in the years following its release). However, “3%” brings with it some unique elements and compelling characters, plus a strong take on the social implications of the premise.
The series begins at the beginning of The Process, as the 20-year-olds striving to reach the promised land known as the Offshore — a cast attractive and diverse enough to hold up as a CW drama ensemble — sign up for a series of difficult physical, mental and social challenges which aim primarily to reduce their numbers. No spoilers, but of course there’s more going on than just a simple competition, as characters enter The Process with hidden motivations, including an interest in taking the system down entirely.
“3%” is the first Netflix original series to come from Brazil, but comparing “3%” to Netflix’s more lavish productions is like comparing a piece of toast to a Thanksgiving feast. The production design features some appropriately advanced fictional technology, but otherwise this futuristic world, particularly the training center where The Process takes place, looks like it was shot in the hallways of various office parks on the weekends.
It doesn’t look bad — in fact, director/executive producer Cesar Charlone, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer of “City of God,” brings both guerrilla flair and an eye for beauty to the screen. But the lack of budget is quite clear, at least for this type of narrative, which is so dependent on world-building.
However, money isn’t everything. With limited resources, “3%’s” ability to captivate relies on both acting and storytelling, and succeeds on both counts. The entirely Brazilian cast is led by João Miguel as Ezequiel, who oversees the selection process while managing his own secrets, as well as Bianca Comparato as Michele, a candidate determined to make it all the way to the end of The Process. But many of the other candidates, including wheelchair-bound Fernando (Michel Gomes) and ruthless Rafael (Rodolfo Valente), prove compelling.
Meanwhile, the mysteries buried within the storytelling — such as what the Offshore even looks like, and what it means to be a member of it — are enough to inspire a full-day binge, with enough twists to keep the status quo on its toes, right through to the end of the season. It helps as well that the storytelling takes place over a tightly paced eight episodes, with none of the bloat that sometimes weighs down Netflix series.
That tight pace has one minor drawback: More set-up at the beginning, to strengthen the basic realities of this world (specifically, the circumstances that led to creating the divide between the Inlanders and those granted access to the Offshore, as well as how the rules of law apply within each subsection), wouldn’t have gone amiss. But perhaps those are issues that Season 2 might dig into, as well as the themes of class that get invoked by the finale.
What would a Season 2 of “3%” look like? It’s hard to say based on the finale, but the ride that was Season 1 left me surprised and impressed. Yes, if you don’t already speak Portuguese, the subtitles are a commitment, but for any fan of this particular genre it’s an easy recommend — as well as a nice reminder for Netflix that they don’t need to break the bank, budget-wise, to create a compelling series.