Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
You wouldn’t think sex and scandal could ever mesh with slavery on a would-be legacy series. You wouldn’t be wrong, either, but because peak TV rewards risk, here’s giving credit where credit is due. To its credit, Underground, WGN America’s newest breath into the original programming bubble, works hard to slip a sleek cable skin over everything ugly about America’s darkest chapter (if a chapter can last 250 years). Feats that big fall hard, though, and the difficult legacy the show shoulders means that every misstep it takes stands to cripple it.
The story Underground tells is familiar enough. Outside the lush white walls of the Macon plantation, men, women, and children toil in the Georgia summer steam, forced to carry King Cotton on their beaten backs. The slaves “owned” by Tom Macon live as best they can, which proves to be a burden all its own. All the while, they chase murmurs of the Underground Railroad, a secret way north that might as well be a myth, given their unlucky lot. “If God’s picked a side,” one character says bitingly, “It ain’t ours.”
The first we meet among them is Noah, rakish and charming and played by Leverage regular Aldis Hodge. Abducted by slave catchers after “getting lost” on an errand, Noah finds what he’s told is the map to freedom, carved into the wall of the jailhouse. Finding somebody to read it to him, though, means involving others in the escape. Before long, Noah is putting together a crack team and a master plan, with one goal in mind: run.
If that all makes the opening episodes of Underground sound like Ocean’s 1857, don’t feel weird. Heist story staples come through clear, from the characters introduced through cutaway flashbacks during the “recruitment” segment to gripping bits of suspense as the slaves hide their progress from the folks in the Big House. It’s just that, in this case, the team doing the stealing is at the same time being stolen. The series comes courtesy of writers Misha Green (Helix and Sons of Anarchy) and Joe Pokaski (Heroes), whose hip action pedigrees collide with the magic touch of producer John Legend to create a tone that’s nothing if not pretty cool.
That’s a pretty big mental gap to bridge, considering Underground is, again, set against American slavery, which is by no hard argument one of the least cool things imaginable. Great pains are taken to impart a cool vibe, though, from throwing daggers and Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.” In ways, it all almost feels insensitive. Regardless, there’s a scene in which house slave Rosalee (Jurnee Smolett-Bell) guesses at the poetry of the tattoos on Noah’s whip-scarred back. It’s about owning your own story, she says. You might say the series is doing the same.
In fact, Underground runs a bigger risk in its grasps at gray areas, both in terms of character and morality, than in its tricks of tone. Mr. Cato (Alano Miller) is a rare success here. His comparatively cozy relationship with Macon rightly earns him the ire of the other slaves, whom he denigrates as nastily as any white person in the time period would. Cato is a “you bastard” kind of villain, the kind you hate too much even to love to hate him. Watching Miller wrestle with the power Cato is given is fascinating, and the mysterious burn scars shrouding his face (and his past) are a priceless finishing touch.
But while any society premised on the ownership of one person by another will have its moral ambiguities, Underground bloodies its own nose trying to wrestle all of them. At the periphery of the slaves’ storyline is a supporting slew of white folks, each one complicating the series in unpleasant ways. There’s Christopher Meloni as the taciturn “slave hunter” who longs to bond with his young son when he’s not out brutalizing runaways. There’s an altruistic Yankee couple, played by Jessica De Gouw and Marc Blucas, who add their home to the Underground Railroad only to have it go sideways with some appalling Funny Games antics at the hands of one of the “bad” escapees passing through with the others.
Even Macon, who’s having an affair with one of his slaves, for some reason gets to make a racy scene of it, dousing his body – and his lover’s – in wine and soft cellar light. Maybe she’s doing everything she has to in order to survive Macon’s violent authority. But that would make the sensual music all the more unsettling.
Touches like these, the ones Underground hopes will carry it upward, are instead the ones tying it down. With a subject this sensitive, those misfires are so much riskier. Against all convention, Underground could even be flashier. A tighter vision, though, is what will make its flash burn brighter.