WGN America’s Underground, a drama about the Underground Railroad in Georgia in the 1850s, is a troublesome and troubling series — a violent melodrama full of jeopardy and plot twists, built around a moral stain on the country’s history. Several scenes in the pilot are unwatchable in the best way. Among the most harrowing is one in which Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell of True Blood), a slave employed in the big house of the Macon family plantation near Atlanta, is getting ready to serve a politically pivotal dinner party for her owner, Tom Macon (Reed Diamond), when her younger brother and Tom’s son, who are playing together outside, accidentally run in front of a white slave driver and cause him to stop and spill his goods onto the dirt. The slave driver hauls out a whip and prepares to lash Rosalee’s brother; Rosalee rushes out from the big house and begs him to lash her instead, and he does, striking her repeatedly on the forearm and tearing bloody strips off her skin. The whip’s cracks and Rosalee’s screams are piercing. The scene goes on and on until the sound drops out and the horror continues in silence, accompanied only by a mournful vocal track that signifies lament. Repeated cutaways to the plantation’s front porch reveal that such atrocities are no big deal here: Tom’s wife, Suzanna (Andrea Frankle), who doesn’t like Rosalee, looks on in malicious interest, while Tom continues reading his newspaper, pausing only to warn the attacker, “That’s enough. She’s gonna need those hands to serve the party tonight.”
If every scene in Underground were that bleak but single-mindedly focused, it might earn points for rubbing audiences’ noses in historical facts that white and black Americans alike may prefer not to think about. There is a tradition of transforming slavery into tales of suffering and transcendence, represented by the likes of the 1969 film Burn!, the 2013 Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave, and the 1977 mini-series blockbuster Roots (which is being remade as a History show, set to premiere in May). But series creators Misha Green (Spartacus, Sons of Anarchy) and Joe Pokaski (Heroes, Daredevil) strain to make Underground as pop-modern and TV-gripping as possible: a prison-break saga extended over ten weeks, in which an intrepid band of slaves, free men, and abolitionists works to break the chains of forced labor and help the oppressed escape to the North.
The ensemble cast includes Renwick Scott as Henry, a smart and rebellious teenage slave; Mykelti Williamson as the field hand Moses, who has to decide if he really believes that slavery is God’s will; Marc Blucas as John Hawkes, an abolitionist who’s first seen giving an anti-slavery speech on courthouse steps to an audience of none; Jessica de Gouw as John’s infertile wife, Elizabeth, who’s renovating their house by randomly bashing holes in the walls; Christopher Meloni as August Pullman, a kind-eyed tough guy who, to put it mildly, is not what he seems; and Alano Miller as Cato, a house slave with a half-burned face who seems loyal to the master and ominously warns others that if they succeed in organizing a mass escape, “it’s gonna be the slaves left behind who pay the price.” There isn’t a bad performance in the main cast, and most are exemplary, committing to every moment, including the more problematic ones, and filling in the margins with thoughtful physical details, such as Miller’s tendency to have Cato address other characters by leading with the non-scarred side of his face, or the way Meloni uses Clint Eastwood–like, all-American White Tough Guy body language and intonations to obscure the character’s motivations.
But they’re employed on a series that is animated by noble intentions but that nonetheless (unintentionally, surely) trivializes one of the nation’s great original sins by treating it as a source of intrigue and thrills. The show builds its main plot around the Indiana Jones–style decoding of a map that reveals geographical signposts leading to freedom (a touch of J. J. Abrams). And it leans on storytelling and filmmaking techniques that seem calculated to enforce a feeling of immediacy and modernity but that instead make Underground play like a visually clichéd blockbuster adventure film. The pilot’s opening sequence of the blacksmith Noah (Aldis Hodge of TNT’s Leverage) making an escape attempt gets Underground off on the wrong foot, as director Anthony Hemingway chops Noah’s flight from a slave catcher into Cuisinart bits that fracture geography, timing nearly every edit to the rhythm of staccato breathing on the sequence’s pop soundtrack. As music-video styling, it’s bravura. But unfortunately, it aestheticizes Noah’s suffering and fear and puts us at a distance from it, when what we need at that early juncture is to be completely immersed in it and feel it from the inside.
The first few episodes of Underground, which detail the expansion of the Underground Railroad into Macon territory, have a bit of an American Horror Story feeling; that would be exactly the right approach if this were American Horror Story: Slavery, but it doesn’t feel right for a bona fide American horror story. The camera swoops and dives and tilts, the editing pulverizes clearly mapped-out action into mirror shards, and fragments of contemporary rock and hip-hop bubble up on the soundtrack at odd moments. While the scripts set up and execute various clever twists, they aren’t clever enough to allay concerns that the show is trying so hard to reassure viewers that they aren’t being force-fed a meal of high-fiber historical fiction that it’s overcompensating with eye candy. Underground will deservedly spark think pieces asking how grim and austere a story of slavery has to be, and whether imbuing it with the trappings of a weekly potboiler such as Lost, Prison Break, or Quantico risks turning one of the great American shames into just another source of entertainment. It’s not a new question, though: It’s asked every time a Hollywood film or TV program tries to combine dire history with entertainment values without allowing the second to compromise the first. Only the relative paucity of mainstream stories about slavery, compared to stories of the Holocaust, infantry combat, and Titanic-style disasters, makes Underground’s efforts in that direction feel particularly unstable and irksome. It’s a gripping series but far from a great one, and there are bound to be more like it; in a roundabout way, this is progress.
Underground. WGN America. Wednesdays. 10 p.m.
*This article appears in the March 7, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.