WGN’s Underground suffers from a modern sense of deja-vu.
From its opening scene featuring Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” WGN’s Underground sets out to tell a familiar story with modern flourish. But Baz Luhrmann this is not. The series quickly settles into routine territory we’ve seen in other pre-Civil War narratives, only with a hip-hop soundtrack instead of sweeping strings.
One thing Underground has going for it is that we’ve never seen something like this on episodic TV. Yes, there’s Roots, but that was a miniseries. Surely, the road to freedom is longer than eight episodes of ABC television, and Underground looks to explore that. Although WGN can be willy-nilly with support of its historical series (RIP Manhattan).
Set in 1857 Georgia, Underground follows a group of slaves at a Georgia plantation led by Noah (Aldis Hodge), who’s planning their route to freedom. The slave owner and Senate hopeful Tom Macon (Reed Diamond) is brothers with abolitionist John Hawkes (Marc Blucas), who’s frustrated with society’s lack of progression, but doesn’t have enough cajones to actually do something about it (yet).
One storytelling device that hopefully Underground director Anthony Hemingway (People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Red Tails, Changing Lanes) eventually does away with are the jump-cut flashbacks. When John Hawkes comes home to his wife Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw), who has taken down a wall with a sledgehammer to make room for a baby, we learn that she’s actually barren in strange sidebar scenes that are shot through a hangover lens. Not only are they distracting to the story, but they are also unnecessary, especially when Elizabeth confesses to her husband her infertility later in the episode (wouldn’t that have been a more powerful moment if we hadn’t known she couldn’t have children?).
Sadly, Underground doesn’t use any of its strengths to its advantage. Series television lends more time for more stories to tell, but the show still feels narrow in its vision. And the modern music isn’t helpful toward furthering the story. It’s distracting. In the second episode titled “War Chest,” Hawkes and Elizabeth go to a brothel to meet William Still (Chris Chalk) to see about helping with the cause, once again, to a modern soundtrack. It’s so unnecessary, and without it, the scene would have had the same impact.
There are surely stories left to tell when it comes to slavery and pre-Civil War America, but other than the gimmicky music, this one feels like we’ve seen it before. Many times over.