Underground,the first major scripted drama show to use the Underground Railroad as a setting, premieres tonight on WGN America. We’ve seen the first three episodes of the suspenseful, ensemble-driven drama. Here are our thoughts…
I’m a big proponent of the theory that historical dramas are never as much about the period they’re set in as they are about the one they’re made in. And the stories and systemic scariness of Undergroundare still very much relevant to our countries’ racism, a contemporary reality that of course has its roots in the system of slavery that helped build this country. How our country’s history of slavery still informs our present is something we are, generally, bad at discussing in national discourse. One needs look no further than this interminable presidential election cycle to figure that out.
As much as Undergroundis about mid-19th century Georgia, it is also about the prison industrial complex, police brutality, and Black Lives Matter — which is to say: it is about the systemic racism that is still built into almost everything we do as a nation. Even if Underground is not outright commenting on these raw, high-stakes, entrenched national issues, it will inform them. They need to be explored and worked through. That is one of the jobs of pop culture and, when it comes to black representation and explorations of racism in main stream culture, we aren’t doing a very good job.
Undergroundisn’t perfect, but — at least in the first three episodes — it is a compelling, well-executed drama. When we tell stories about America’s history of slavery, we often tell them from the point of view of the white characters. Though Undergrounddoes have its own white savior storyline, it does a pretty good job letting the characters of color be the heroes of their own story. White married couple John Hawkes (Marc Blucas) and Elizabeth Hawkes (Jessica de Gouw) may be toying with the idea of becoming a stop on the Underground Railroad, but it is ambitious, clever field slave Noah (Aldis Hodge) and reserved, yet passionate house slave Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett), among others, who must plan, mobilize, and implement their plantation escape and evade escaped slave hunters for 600 miles.
Undergroundcan be a bit heavy-handed with its themes and plot mechanics at points, but for the most part it does a good job juggling a myriad of interconnected characters and story arcs. It is an ambitious structure, to be sure. Much of the action is set on the Georgian plantation that serves as home for most of the characters — both white and black — but there is a complexity to this hierarchal, unjust, and interpersonal world that Undergrounddoes a good job exploring.
Meanwhile, the promise and danger of the Underground Railroad, stretching all the way to the North, creates a sense of scope reinforced by John and Elizabeth’s easy traversal of it. For them, taking the train from Atlanta to Philadelphia is no harder than purchasing a ticket. For Noah, Rosalee, and the others considering the treacherous path to the North, the effort is nigh unthinkable — or at least that’s what the slaveowners want them to think. The show doesn’t waste much time plunging its characters, or its viewers, into the action-packed suspense of that escape. Even before anyone leaves the plantation, the danger has begun. It is an inherent element of our heroes’ existences.
Co-creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski met while working on Heroes,and created Undergroundto have the same kind of fast-paced structure of action suspense shows like 24. It shows, but the direction can be distractingly uneven at times. This show hasn’t quite figured out what it wants its tone or aesthetic to be. In the first three episodes, there’s enough that’s great about the content that makes the form less important.
This unevenness extends to the soundtrack, which is a mixture of more traditional compositions and some hip-hop and pop seemingly pulled right off the radio. The contemporary music a la Marie Antoinette works in some scenes (bringing energy and pacing to the shots) better than it does in others, but I am always for more TV and film projects breaking the somewhat arbitrary rules of the historical format, so I am willing to let Undergroundoff the hook for the scenes in which the music shakes you out of the narrative.
There are so many familiar faces in this show. Friday Night Lights‘ Jurnee Smollett as Rosalee. Leverage’sAldis Hodge as Noah. Rectify‘s Johnny Ray Gill as Sam, a skilled woodworker. The 100‘s Adina Porter as literate mother and wife Pearly Mae. Law & Order: SVU‘s Christopher Meloni as August Pullman, a secretive, desperate father. Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Marc Blucas as John Hawkes, a man torn between morality and family. Dollhouse’sReed Diamond as Tom Macon, a plantation owner and aspiring senator. The list of familiar, impressive cast members goes on and on.
The stand out characters in the first few episodes (at least for me) are Cato (Alano Miller, Jane the Virgin) and Elizabeth Hawkes (Jessica De Gouw, who you may recognize as Arrow’s Huntress). Cato is a slave who has seemingly sold out his fellow slaves for favor in “the big house,” but his motivations are murky and complicated. Elizabeth Hawkes is introduced while swinging a sledgehammer through a wall in her house, which is one of the better entrances for a character in this — or any — show.
Undergroundisn’t perfect in its first three episodes, but there is enough to hook fans of suspenseful, character-driven drama. Though it takes a while for the pilot to get going character-wise (there are so many characters to introduce), the connection between this plot’s seemingly disparate, but actually inextricable parts becomes ever clearer as the show progresses. With only 10 episodes in its first season, Undergroundseems poised to keep up the heart-pounding, heart-wrenching pace set its first episode for the entirety of this race for freedom. Hopefully, enough viewers will tune in to see it accomplished.
Undergroundpremieres Wednesday, March 9 at 10 p.m. on WGN.