Having previously plumbed the 17th-century and then the 1940s via Salem and Manhattan, WGN America’s next period drama, Underground, aims to bring a modern sensibility to the senseless injustice of slavery in the United States circa 1857.
Specifically, as its title suggests, the 10-episode series — created by Misha Green (Sons of Anarchy) and Joe Pokaski (Heroes) and premiering Wednesday, March 9 at 10/9c) — offers an alternately gripping and illuminating look at the Underground Railroad system by which the bravest (and/or most desperate) of slaves sought to escape to the north, with the hope of living free. It does so by delivering all points of view, from the slaves who suffer all manner of indignities to the plantation owners who abused (and used) them. From the slave drivers at odds with their indentured brethren to white northerners who put everything on the line to right our country’s greatest wrong.
Aldis Hodge stars as Noah, a blacksmith owned by Georgia plantation owner/ aspiring senator Tom Macon (24 alum Reed Diamond) and his expectant wife Suzanna (Andrea Frankle). Always so entertaining on Leverage as the clever hacker Hardison, Hodge here brings an almost-manic, yet measured, intensity to his role as a man who has met his limit and thus spearheads a remarkable plan to escape and travel hundreds of miles to freedom. The team that Noah assembles each brings, in a highly Prison Break-like manner, a certain skillset, from engineering to (alleged) literacy to simple, brute strength.
Among the Macon Plantation house slaves, Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Rosalee starts off quiet and conservative, working alongside her mother Ernestine (Amirah Vann, in a revelatory performance). But when the young woman is brutalized as the result of a benign incident, a fire is lit within her, steering her in the direction of Noah’s ambitious plan.
Underground‘s other narratives follow August Pullman (SVU alum Christopher Meloni), a thorn in the side of slave-chasing bounty hunters and father to a growing, impressionable son, and John and Elizabeth Hawkes (Buffy’s Marc Blucas and Dracula‘s Jessica de Gouw), an abolitionist lawyer and his wife who gradually come to discover other, daring ways of subverting a despicable system.
Mykelti Williamson (Justified), Adina Porter (The 100), Alano Miller (Jane the Virgin) — as the allegiance-fluid slave driver Cato — and Chris Chalk (Gotham) round out an engaging cast with few weak links.
An unseen star of the series is the music — wherein lies what is arguably Underground‘s defining twist. Recording artist John Legend serves as an executive producer and in that capacity oversees a score that weaves in contemporary tunes from Kanye West, The Weeknd, Raphael Saadiq and Grace Potter & The Nocturnals. What is admittedly jarring at first — the series’ opening sequence segues from a runaway slave’s fearful pants to Kanye’s “Black Skinhead” — ultimately, and used sparingly as it is, brings an added energy to Underground‘s innate intensity.
That however is not to say that Underground is some glossy, music-video depiction of a blight on humanity. No, there are hard-to-watch whippings, beatings and other inhumane means of enforcing compliance, and Diamond’s plantation owner is among those who let fly with the N-word as if any old noun. (The casual existence of such obscene social stratification, while a part of history, will never not be difficult to witness.)
Underground has its shortcomings. As Noah enacts the early steps of his Prison Break-like plan, the close calls are at times resolved too tidily. August takes a short while to dovetail with the larger arc, and Suzanna Macon is a bit of a cipher. But the solid cast, compelling overall storyline and deft twists (Rosalee’s mother is full of surprises) add up to an engrossing, enlightening drama.