Back when Underground, the thrilling slavery escape drama that ran for an entirely too-short two-season run on WGN America, premiered in 2016, Black audiences were in no way starved for portrayals of that dark chapter in history. In 2012, the imaginative Django Unchained hit theaters. One year later, the based-on-a-true story 12 Years A Slave was released. And only a few months after Underground premiered, a remake of Roots came to TV. As she was creating, writing, and executive producing Underground, Misha Green had certainly heard all the (justifiable) concerns that Black people had seen enough of slavery and, well, nevertheless she persisted.
"That's out there – that some people definitely felt some fatigue," Misha Green, who co-created the series with Joe Pokaski, told TV Guide in 2016. "We've heard all the hesitation. We say, 'Just show up for the episodes.' It's worth coming back to week after week."
Thank goodness for her tenacity. As the series unfolded, Underground proved to be a fresh and ultimately vital depiction of some courageous freedom fighters' hunger for emancipation, and a story that turned many of the tropes in the genre on their head.
Underground is worth revisiting because it's not so much a slavery story as it is a thriller with enslaved heroes — including Noah (Aldis Hodge) and his love interest Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) — as the principal characters. Noah and Rosalee are joined by comrades on the plantation and assisted by white abolitionists; they're double-crossed and doubted by fellow Black people too. Underground digs into the mechanics of slavery — the economics of the business, the inhumane atrocities, and the unfathomable choices they had to make to stay alive — while making it anything but a stale history lesson.
Unfortunately, the show was canceled after WGN America became collateral damage following a purchase by another company. Still, the show leaves a lot to unpack and a lot to love. Here are five reasons it remains a must-see series.
"Part of the reason we're drawn to the format of TV," said Green, "is that you have time to show [that the characters] laughed and loved; they had complexity to them. They had distinct identities and personalities." Green and her team apply this nuanced approach to building each character, but there are a few whose stories are particularly engrossing. Rosalee, who was born and raised on a Georgia plantation, is as cunning and resourceful as she is naive, which raises the stakes when she decides to run off with Noah. Cato (Alano Miller) is captivating as the Black overseer who juggles his loyalties, eager to escape with the team but determined to save his own hide at all costs. In that way, he's similar to Ernestine (Amirah Vann), Rosalee's head-of-house mother who protects her children and others by any means necessary — including sex and murder. Among the other standouts is August Pullman (Christopher Meloni), a slave capturer whose confused moral compass doesn't keep him from tracking down desperate people for a profit.
Suspense and danger are baked into the plot as Noah and his friends are constantly on the run, but there are also quietly tense moments that keep the narrative exceptionally tight. Cato, especially, makes some shocking decisions. "With Cato hopefully you'll be surprised at every turn," Green said. "He's a complex character — one of those characters we're fascinated by." At any given moment, he could be loyal to his brethren or throw one of his own to the wolves without a thought. And though Green understood that viewers may initially "want to pigeonhole him as a villain," she also warned that things with Cato may not be so simple. "He's gone through a lot," she noted.
Everyone in Underground does great work, but two performers in particular reach moments of otherworldly excellence. First is Smollett-Bell. Without spoiling too much, Rosalee makes some impossible choices in the final episodes of Season 2 that will leave you breathless and are likely a hint at the limits the actress may go to in the forthcoming Lovecraft Country, the HBO drama that reunites Smollett-Bell and Green. Secondly, there's Aisha Hinds, who delivers a stunning, hour-long solo performance as Harriet Tubman in a Season 2 episode that will haunt you and perhaps make you wonder why she never got an Emmy nomination for her spellbinding monologue.
Much was said about the music for the show when it originally aired — and for good reason. Modern rock, EDM, and soul music, including tunes from artists like The Weeknd and Kanye West (who was initially set to be the series' musical director), provide a contrast to what's happening on screen, helping to keep the show fresh and prevent it from being a stiff period piece. The music, Green said, is "a way of bridging past and present. It doesn't feel like a sepia-toned slave narrative. This is one of the most heroic stories in U.S. history." We also learn early on that music is integral to the premise of the show, since the secret route to freedom was cleverly hidden in the coded lyrics of a song the enslaved people sang to one another.
All the choices the people in this narrative make are a consequence of the awful circumstances they're in. So while scenes in which characters decide to end their lives or a child's rather than endure another day of bondage may be difficult to watch, the unfortunate truth is that very little of this is fictionalized. It all happened to real people — including Henry "Box" Brown, the enslaved man whose idea to ship himself from Virginia to abolitionists in Philadelphia in a wooden crate is depicted in an episode. Loads of research provided a wealth of material about the ingenious plots enslaved people hatched to escape. For example, before this show honored her story, had you ever heard about the biracial woman Ellen Craft, who posed as a white man and, with husband William as her "slave," calmly and cooly fled Georgia via train and steamboat? "There's so much to be told," Green told TV Guide. "There's not enough air time."
A version of this article was originally published in March 2016.
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