Ignore the placement on a non-HBO or AMC network, WGN America’s Underground is as worthy of Emmy attention as any other network dramatic series.
Near the end of the second episode of WGN’s drama Underground, the demure house slave Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) says to the blacksmith Noah (Aldis Hodge) that she has realized why he chooses to get tattoos over the whip scars on his back, adding pain on top of pain.
“It’s about not lettin’ the white folks define your story… it’s about making it your own.”
This line is, in many ways, the thesis of Underground, which takes the form of a story about slavery but refuses to be constrained by the clichés of the setting. With energy and style, showrunners Misha Green and Joe Pokaski structure their story of a group of runaway slaves as something like a heist narrative with twists and secrets that turn what could have been a depressing story of suffering into an electrifying tale of adventure and survival. Like Noah’s tattoos, Underground doesn’t tone down or disguise the pain of slavery but reclaims and reinvents it into something new and powerful.
The series follows the exploits of the “Macon 7,” a group of slaves who plan an escape from a Southern cotton plantation owned by Tom Macon, a carpetbagger with political ambitions. Noah, played by Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton, TNT’s Leverage), is the charismatic leader of the group, but Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s (Parenthood, True Blood) Rosalee is the true heart of the series. Having lived her entire life in the Big House as a house slave, she has seen a different side of slavery than the ones who work the fields (One of several brilliant touches by Green and Pokaski is how they’re able to illustrate and dramatize the class conflicts on the plantation… not just between black and white, but male and female, house slave vs field slave, etc.), She is still acutely aware of her constant peril. Being raised to be demure doesn’t mean you’re weak, and once she is drawn into Noah’s plan to escape she proves herself as steely and capable of fighting as any of the male members of their party. Both leads deserve Emmy consideration, but Jurnee Smollett-Bell is exceptional.
Among the supporting cast, the most prominent name belongs to Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU), who plays an expert slave tracker. He doesn’t particularly enjoy his job but does it because he needs a way to support his young son. Another character stuck in the grey area between good and evil is Cato (Alano Miller, Jane the Virgin), a prominent house slave who forces himself into Noah’s party and whose cutthroat pragmatism in his own quest for freedom leads him to constantly waver between Antihero, Hero and even outright villain, infusing in his character an unpredictability that is irresistible. Another standout is Amirah Vann (And So it Goes, Tracers) who plays Rosalee’s mother Ernestine, who is willing to go to incredible lengths in order to protect her children from Tom Macon’s brutality. The only stumbling block in the show is (appropriately enough) the subplot following a white abolitionist couple who decide to use their home as a holding ground for the Underground Railroad. They soon discover that doing so is a lot more difficult than they expected. The problems of these rich white people are so much less compelling than those of the Macon 7 that they deflate the tension of the rest of the show in spite of the good performances from Marc Blucas and Jessica De Gouw.
Technically, the show is also first-rate. The sets and costumes are always authentic, and the soundtrack (supervised by John Legend, who is also one of the show’s executive producers) uses a combination of period music and contemporary songs to set and underscore the mood. Anthony Hemmingway (who also directed several episodes of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story) directed the extended pilot and several other episodes. He gives the series a dynamic look, stylish but never sanitized, and treats the violence in a manner that is unflinching but not gratuitous. Subsequent episodes directed by Kate Woods and Tim Hunter also contain standout sequences of action and acting that, were the show airing on HBO or AMC, would have set Twitter ablaze.
Underground’s biggest obstacle on the way to the Emmys could well be the fact that it airs on WGN America, which has had a number of acclaimed dramas (Manhattan, Salem) that never quite seem to get the respect they deserve, possibly due to the “common knowledge” that only shows that air on basic or pay cable are worth watching. Make no mistake-Underground is as good as anything on TV right now, regardless of network. Due to its accessible subject matter and several big names among the cast, Underground might be WGN America’s best shot yet at the Emmy race yet.
It most certainly deserves it.
Aldis Hodge, Lead Actor
Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Lead Actress
Alano Miller, Supporting Actor
Christoper Meloni, Supporting Actor
Amirah Vann, Supporting Actress
Jussie Smollett, Guest Actor
Christopher Backus, Guest Actor
Anthony Hemmingway, Best Directing (“The Macon 7”)
Kate Woods, Best Directing (“Cradle”, “Graves”)
Tim Hunter, Best Directing (“Black and Blue”, “The White Whale”)