What stories in our shared, white-centric television culture even compare — “Prison Break,” maybe? The original “Fugitive” series?
The answer is nothing compares, nothing so dire and real as the act of escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad in the 19th-century South. If you tilt the prism a certain commercial way (and page through your history books with a TV producer’s eye), this is our nation’s ultimate action-adventure tale — the Greatest Escape — with no ambiguity whatsoever about whom to root for and what to fear.
In that way, WGN America’s thrilling and occasionally provocative “Underground” (premiering Wednesday) is both way overdue and right on time. It’s a terrific idea for a drama series, but it works even better as a subliminal backdrop to present-day talk of mass incarceration, unwarranted arrests, police brutality and other disturbing symptoms of modern racism. Whether viewers like it or not, we need more shows like this, not only for their diverse character viewpoints, but also for the way that they can measure who we once were against the challenging realities of who we still are.
Yet “Underground” hardly comes across as a studious piece of PBS fare — or even a fancy miniseries such as the “Roots” remake expected from the History Channel this spring. It doesn’t even have the contextual discipline of FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” What “Underground” does have, to its immediate benefit, is a fast, dirty and necessary sense of life-or-death momentum, which puts it more in the mode of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” (with perhaps even the faintest flavor of Fox’s melodramatic “Empire”).
All those comparisons heap too much expectation and responsibility on the first four episodes of “Underground,” which work better as a thunderous TV drama than as a potential thesis on culture, ably weaving together the stories of slave and master; the hunted and the hunters.
Georgia, 1857: A cotton plantation owned by the Macon family has a geographical advantage of hills, forests and rivers that have discouraged generations of slaves from escaping. Despite the odds, a fever for freedom has caught hold — as have encrypted details of a clandestine network that can help runaways make it north. A determined blacksmith named Noah (Aldis Hodge of “Straight Outta Compton” and “Turn: Washington’s Spies”), flees the plantation long enough to locate a hidden message that offers clues to contacting the Underground Railroad, the key to surviving a 600-mile journey to freedom.
Noah is captured, to a pulse-pounding sample from Kanye West’s 2013 hit “Black Skinhead.” (The use here of modern music is its own discussion, which I’ll get to in a sec.) Noah receives a brutal series of lashings as punishment from the plantation’s owner, Tom Macon (Reed Diamond), for what is the American slave movie or TV show without deep, bloody welts and suppressed cries of anguish? “Underground” doesn’t spare viewers the violence of the era, nor should it. Tending to his wounds, Noah hatches a plan with a select group of other Macon slaves to escape to the Ohio River.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell (“Parenthood”; “True Blood”) co-stars as Rosalee, who serves in the plantation house alongside her mother, Ernestine (Amirah Vann), who holds a smidgen of power as head house slave. The relative comfort Ernestine has found for herself and her offspring comes at the price of deep personal compromise and, through a series of events not worth spoiling, Rosalee becomes an unlikely member of Noah’s group of would-be escapees.
“Underground” is created and written by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski; their combined credits include work on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” NBC’s “Heroes” and Netflix’s “Daredevil,” and although their pilot episode struggles a bit with tone and dialogue, it more than makes up for it by quickly and skillfully stitching together a complex quilt of stories, both black and white, that helps the viewer prioritize the characters and plots. Among these are the subplot of John and Elizabeth Hawkes (Marc Blucas and Jessica De Gouw), a white abolitionist couple who tentatively volunteer to become secret helpers of the Underground Railroad.
In a show in which many of the white characters predictably verge on antebellum ham (including the usual sneers from the pampered Macon women and bitter cruelty from the plantation’s henchmen), “Underground” finds its nuance and surprises elsewhere, such as Alano Miller’s compelling portrayal of Cato, a conniving slave/middle-manager who abuses and betrays his community as Macon’s right-hand man — all the while trying to convince Noah to include him in the escape plan. There is also Christopher Meloni (“Oz”; “Law and Order: SVU”) co-starring as August Pullman, a highly skilled and ruthless hunter of runaways who is nevertheless presented to us as a morally conflicted character — a trait that doesn’t quite come through in the initial episodes.
John Legend, who is one of “Underground’s” executive producers, collaborates with Mike Jackson and Ty Stiklorius on the show’s contemporary soundtrack — and it’s not the first time that a TV show or a film set in history has been injected with modern hits. The intent is to lend the events of “Underground” a right-now sense of urgency with an eagerness to connect past and present. It’s an interesting touch, but once those cotton fields are ablaze and a handful of people are running for their very lives, there’s no pop ballad or hip-hop refrain that can help “Underground’s” message come through any louder or clearer than it already does.
Underground (one hour) premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on WGN America.