American slavery should be an impossible subject for an ongoing TV series to handle. Done right as a standalone movie like 12 Years A Slave, or a miniseries like the iconic Roots or BET's more recent The Book of Negroes, it can create a difficult but incredibly cathartic short-term experience. But it's a lot to ask an audience to tune in week after week, season after season, to a story of degradation and unfathomable cruelty that any kind of serious treatment of this blight on our nation's history requires. Do it properly, and you chase away viewers in a hurry. Lighten things up, and you risk diminishing the subject to the point of offensiveness.
Underground, WGN America's latest period drama (it debuts Wednesday night at 10), finds a clever solution to that problem. It's set in the pre-Civil War South, and most of its characters are slaves on a Georgia cotton plantation, and it treats their plight with the gravity it deserves. But its story revolves around the slaves' attempt to stage a mass escape, hook up with the Underground Railroad, and find their way North. It's less Roots: The Series than The Great Antebellum Escape.
The series offers brutal and unflinching moments about life on the plantation for blacksmith Noah (Aldis Hodge), house maid Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), one-eyed preacher Moses (Mykelti Williamson), and everyone else under the thumb of plantation owner Tom Macon (Reed Diamond), a transplanted Yankee who smugly extolls the virtues, and rewards, of the slave economy. Characters are whipped, torn from their loved ones, and worse. This isn't a cleaned-up depiction of a historical atrocity.
But Underground creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski have figured out how to take the subject seriously even as the show itself is primarily pulp fiction: lean, mean, unfussy, and with a constant sense of forward momentum. It's a prison break story, with all the familiar tropes applied to a circumstance that was prison in every way but name.
So of course there's the sequence where Noah, a natural-born leader who refuses to accept a life in bondage, starts identifying potential allies for their unique skill sets: Moses says he can read and write (useful for following directions and forging documents), Sam (Johnny Ray Gill) builds things, Zeke (Theodus Crane) provides muscle, etc. There's also a hidden map, questions of loyalty – particularly after the head house slave Cato (Alano Miller) shows interest in joining the operation – a particularly cruel and mercurial guard, and all the other staples of this kind of tale. But because of the setting, and the fact that the inmates are guilty only of having the wrong skin color, the stakes feel incredibly high. The whole thing is a contradiction of tones that have no business working together – a fun show embedded inside a true-life abomination – and yet somehow do.
Much of the credit for this goes to Anthony Hemingway, a veteran TV director (The Wire, Tremé, and several recent installments of The People v. O.J. Simpson) who helms Underground's first four episodes and steers a steady course between caper movie and historical epic. But so much weight is on the actors playing the slaves, and particularly on Hodge. He's got a little bit of everything on his resume that can apply here – he was glowering replacement quarterback Ray “Voodoo” Tatum on Friday Night Lights, hacker Alec Hardison on TNT's Leverage, and has recently traveled back in time with both AMC's Turn and as MC Ren in Straight Outta Compton – and gives a riveting, charismatic star performance as the guy trying to hold this crazy plan together. Smollett-Bell (whose brother, Empire star Jussie Smollett, guest stars in one episode) is also outstanding at playing a character required at all times to act bright and cheerful when she's usually feeling anything but.
Unsurprisingly, Underground becomes less compelling whenever the story shifts away from the slaves, particularly in a parallel storyline featuring Marc Blucas and Jessica De Gouw as abolitionists looking to work with the Underground Railroad. That's an important component for the series to have stories past this initial escape plan, but those scenes feel like dusty museum pieces where the rest of the show is brimming with life and current energy. (Blucas is much better suited to be part of a larger group than being asked to essentially carry a show-within-a-show like this.) More promising is a subplot involving Christopher Meloni as a local farmer forced to make hard decisions in order to keep food on his family's table.
Produced by John Legend, the series features lots of modern hip-hop on the soundtrack; the opening sequence, for instance, is scored to Kanye's “Black Skinhead.” It's far from the first period piece to use anachronistic music – see also Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, Cliff Martinez's great electronic score to The Knick, or Django Unchained, which has some thematic, if not stylistic, similarities with Underground – in an attempt to more strongly connect the past to the present, and it's very effective here.
WGN's original series output has been wildly uneven to this point. Manhattan was excellent, but nobody watched, while new drama Outsiders frequently feels like a parody of modern gritty cable dramas. Based on the four episodes I've watched, Underground seems to have hit the sweet spot between quality and commercial potential, and between being respectful of the time it's depicting while finding a way to function as ongoing entertainment.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com