'Underground': TV Review

Underground Still - H 2016
Courtesy of WGN America

Underground Still - H 2016

Modern attitude energizes this history lesson.

WGN America's new drama puts a prison-break thriller spin on a story about the Underground Railroad.

Premiering on Wednesday night, WGN America's new drama Underground isn't exactly fun.

Indeed, "fun" is the wrong word for a show about the harsh realities of slavery circa 1857, a show that features lashings, torture, insinuations of rape and molestation. Even if the backdrop of the Underground Railroad is also one of hope and heroism, there's enough virulent racism and inhumanity fueling the Underground narrative to make for often unpleasant and uncomfortable viewing.

But even if Underground isn't fun, the Misha Green and Joe Pokaski-created series is both exhilarating and entertaining, taking a history lesson and making it something more contemporary, taking a painful chapter in American life and infusing it with populist genres.

Underground is a thriller, an adventure yarn, before it's a Brussels sprouts message drama. Perhaps that's why Underground may not find itself an Emmy contender, but why it ought to be able to attract an enthusiastic audience.

Actually, Underground is largely a prison-break drama, only the prison is a Georgia cotton plantation. Wrongly hauled in as a runaway, Noah (Aldis Hodge) gets his hands on a map to freedom, a coded map providing instructions to navigate to the North along the Underground Railroad. Escape is too much of a task for Noah to execute on his own, so he has to round up a team of fellow slaves, each with a particular expertise. Noah targets the likes of devoted teenage sidekick Henry (Renwick Scott), impossibly strong Zeke (Theodus Crane), gifted carpenter Sam (Johnny Ray Gill) and fiery preacher Moses (Mykelti Williamson), useful because he seems to be able to read. Complicating the escape plan are lovely house slave Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), just beginning to catch Noah's eye, and scheming, scarred Cato (Alano Miller), who seems to be in the pocket of the masters.

Initially outside of the main escape plot is Northern attorney John Hawkes (Marc Blucas), already outspoken on civil rights, but suddenly ready to take a next step with the help of troubled wife Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw). Further down South, we find August Pullman (Christopher Meloni), a farmer struggling to find his way as a single father.

Underground makes its intentions known with an opening scene tracking a slave as he flees from a dog in the dead of night. Director Anthony Hemingway's camera pursues the runner as the soundtrack blares Kanye West's "Black Skinhead." The scene ends with the terrified man cowering in fear, his ragged breathing synched perfectly to the song. Featuring the likes of Great Wolf, Zack Hemsey, Electric Owls, The Weeknd and Jamie N Commons and X Ambassadors, the Underground soundtrack is aggressively anachronistic and vital. There's a focus on songs that are remixes or heavily sampled recognizable hooks, because Underground is, itself, meant to feel like a remix, like it's taking a 12 Years a Slave or an Amistad or a Roots and running it through a processor, changing up its DNA.

Hemingway, a directing producer here, deserves much of the credit for the swagger that Underground possesses and for allaying concerns that the show is stitched together almost completely from TV and movies we've seen before. Sometimes he's showing off, like when the camera swoops down on Rosalee outside the front of the mansion and leads her rushing through the middle of the house in a single, cocky shot. Sometimes he really is — and I still don't love the word — having "fun," like the introductions of the conspirators with brash zoom-ins and tinted flashbacks, straight out of the '70s blaxploitation playbook. Sometimes Hemingway makes you want to wince or cringe at the brutality of it all, but there's a moment at the end of the fourth episode, the last hour sent to critics, that had me straight-up cheering. There's the big-picture plantation escape developing, but each episode has a couple suspense set-pieces like an antebellum Ocean's Eleven or Mission: Impossible, only with the truth of slavery complicating the joy of each miniature heist.

Hodge, a memorable supporting player from Friday Night Lights to Leverage to Straight Outta Compton, has no trouble taking over as a leading man, giving a compelling and passionate performance. Because Noah is strong and demonstrative, it's an easier part to sell than Rosalee, more sheltered and vulnerable, but Smollett-Bell is very good as well. With his allegiances always in question, Miller's Cato is the best of the supporting escapees, but there are no weak links amongst the mixture of familiar faces and relative unknowns. It's a stellar job of casting.

The slavers and abolitionists and their storylines aren't quite as fresh, nor probably are they intended to be. They represent points for the main characters to flee from and possibly make it to. Meloni has the part with the most layers and, thus, the character I'm most eager to return to after the fourth episode. De Gouw, who I didn't love on The CW's Arrow or NBC's Dracula, really pops here and keeps that corner of the story interesting since Blucas, his character or both are a bit of a bore.

When WGN America's last drama, Outsiders, premiered I didn't love it, but it had flashes of craziness that kept me interested. Underground is a crazier show. The soundtrack is leading-edge, the actors don't always deliver their lines like it's 1857 and there are rushes of adrenaline that don't always line up with the solemnity associated with the subject. In this case, the craziness all feels organic, like writers and directors and performers working together to set defy expectations, and Underground seems well on its way.

Cast: Aldis Hodge, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Christopher Meloni, Marc Blucas, Jessica De Gouw, Alano Miller, Mykelti Williamson
Creators: Misha Green and Joe Pokaski
Airs: Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (WGN America)