Aired on: WGN America
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
A couple of weeks ago, I began seeing trailers for a new television series airing Wednesdays at 10pm EST on a television station called WGN America. The trailer was intriguing - a new series about the Underground Railroad...or for those of you who are lacking in the history department, a show about the journey of slaves from the Southern plantations to the North via a network of individuals driven to helping these people find freedom. A student of history with a particular interest in the Civil War period of our country, I was definitely interested in seeing this show.
The debut of Underground aired on March 9th and began with the near escape of a Macon, Georgia slave named Noah (Aldis Hodge) in 1857. Noah knows he was meant to be a free man and not a plantation slave, but he is not quite able to pull off his escape. While held captive by slave catchers, awaiting return to the plantation he ran from, Noah meets another unsuccessful runaway. With his dying breath, the runaway shows him a song that will bring him to the freedom he so desires. Noah makes a copy of the song, but can't read it - for that, he will have to enlist the help of someone else on the plantation.
Meanwhile, a young abolitionist lawyer named John Hawkes (Marc Blucas) is approached to aide the Underground Railroad, but is uncertain as to whether he should break the very laws he has sworn to uphold, even when they protect a practice he so detests. In the end, a party at his brother's (Reed Diamond) plantation decides him, his fragile wife (Jessica De Gouw) summoning the strength to agree to help runaway slaves after witnessing firsthand their ill treatment.
On the day of this fateful party, a recently returned Noah hatches his plot to escape once again. He knows that this can't be a one man operation and so he enlists the help of those he feels will be most useful: his young and devoted friend Henry (Renwick Scott), the incredibly strong Zeke (Theodus Crane), the preacher Moses (Mykelti Williamson) because Noah believes he can read, carpenter Sam (Johnny Ray Gill) and a tougher than she looks house slave named Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who has caught Noah's eye. Unfortunately, he must include Cato (Alano Miller), a scarred black overseer who catches on to Noah's plan and wants in.
Can Noah's plan lead the chosen few to freedom or will tragedy in the form of betrayal or capture by slave catchers and certain death be in his future?
I found Underground to be a credible look at the life of a Georgia plantation slave with all of its hardships. I also found it to be rather accurate in its depiction of what a slave who has tried to escape was subjected to in the mid-1800s. I greatly admired the acting abilities of all involved, especially that of Aldis Hodge and Jumee Smollett-Bell who could express so much anguish just through facial expressions alone, never mind their vocal intonation and body language. The writing of the premiere episode was excellent and didn't have that searching quality that some pilot episodes have - that search for their niche...that look on the actors' faces that says, "I'm not quite in tune with this character yet."
But I did have an issue with the music. Yes, I do believe that the ragged breathing in Kanye West's Black Skinhead was poignant during the scene in which Noah is captured by the slave catchers. While I understand the use of contemporary music and remixes, I found that it took something away from the show for me. The music really didn't represent the time period in which the series takes place. Sure, it grabs your attention, but it seems somewhat out of place with the time and events.
Other than the music, I thought that the acting, storyline, cinematography and use of special camera techniques were amazing enough to make me want to follow Underground to its eventual conclusion.