TV Roulette: Underground

In All, Television by David

So the roulette wheel has been on the back burner lately, what with last month’s Oscar coverage and the need to check in on Teen Wolf. This isn’t due to a lack of interest in doing more roulettes, simply a decision to be a bit more strategic with its use. So with that said, we return this week to the roulette action, ready for whatever it is to bring. That is what makes this week’s selection, WGN America’s Underground, so exciting. WGN America is still in the early stages of its foray into original content, but Underground represents a key part of its next wave, as it goes from a network with an original show or two to becoming an actual brand. Will Underground prove to be a good step in that direction or will it prove to be an early mistake for the “new” network? Find out right after the rundown.

TV Roulette Week 14

Underground; ‘The Lord’s Day,’ Season 1, Episode 3

Air Date  

March 23rd 2016 

Have I Seen This Show Before?


Why not?

I haven’t really watched any of the WGN shows, so this more or less just continued that trend.

WGN America is a weird network. It is a new network, but at the same time it really, really isn’t. For years, WGN was simply a Chicago station that, much like the USA network, made its living on syndication, showing old seasons of popular shows. With one major exception, it is also the Chicago regional sports station, as it is owned by the Tribune Company. That’s one of the reasons I found myself a fan of so many Chicago-based teams when I was a kid (though I am still a Cubs fan, because apparently I like misery)–I could watch their games from my Midwest/Southern hometown in Kentucky. That’s neat, but it’s all WGN has ever been.

But then a funny thing happened– WGN embraced the America part of its moniker and decided to make a more concerted attempt to go national. Like many other networks, WGN realized that the current cable television model is untenable, and that at some point everything is going to break away from the simple cable umbrella. When this happens, networks actually need to have something worth watching if they hope to survive. So in 2014, WGN stuck its toe back into the original television waters with the supernatural horror show Salem and the historical drama Manhattan. While neither has had the success, say, AMC had with its initial entries into the scripted world (which just to be clear is not a fair standard for any network to be held to, because a network’s first two shows being Mad Men and Breaking Bad–not to mention following them up soon after with the powerhouse The Walking Dead–involves a ridiculous amount of timing, luck, and talent), these shows have garnered strong pockets of support to help form a nice fan base for WGN. Now in 2016, WGN is expanding its show catalogue, first with the rural family survivalist drama The Outsiders, and more recently with Underground, which launched earlier this month on March 9th.

Not a great situation, but a striking shot.

Underground seems to fit the type of show that WGN America has been making so far–dramas that have their eye on history in some form (that all get one word titles, apparently). (Maybe one-word titles are being selected for because they use up fewer characters on Twitter? – EdSalem, Manhattan, and Underground are all actual period pieces, and while Outsiders may be modern, it is about a group who lives outside modern society and sometimes feels like it, too, is taking place in the past. Underground, though, is particularly interesting. In the wrong hands, it could be a cynical attempt to recreate the magic of 12 Years a Slave, or simply a misguided attempt to tap into the same audience that Empire and blackish have tapped into; but in the right hands, it could offer a show that looks at race and slavery in a way that media hasn’t really done on television nearly as much as you might expect. The notable exception, of course, being Roots, which is getting its own reboot on the History Channel in a couple of months. At any rate, this is a risky idea for a show, which is why it was perfect for a network like WGN America, who can swing big with less fear of failure than a more established network. (I’ll admit this seems counter-intuitive, but the more mainstream a network becomes, the more cautious its programming, with a few notable exceptions like HBO and FX) WGN needs hits right now, and doesn’t a whole lot to lose. So, I guess the question ultimately is, how does Underground do? Pretty damn well.

At its core, Underground is an escape movie, or in this case an escape show, with the underrated Aldis Hodge and Jurnee Smollet-Bell at the forefront as protagonists Noah and Rosalee. Sure, there are other parts to it. In an effort to show all aspects of the Underground Railroad, the show highlights two abolitionists in the north, John and Elizabeth Hawkes (Marc Blucas and Jessica De Goew) who offer their house up to help shelter runaway slaves on their journey to freedom. The show also goes into plantation life, much like 12 Years a Slave, but the main thrust of the show is the idea of a group of slaves planning a daring escape for freedom. Much of the episode I watched spends time discussing the actual nuts and bolts of an escape attempt. Noah and Sam (Johnny Ray Gill) spend most of the story trying to figure out how to create harnesses that will allow the group to escape underneath the railroad tracks, which leads to a fun scene where Sam has to help distract his master, Tom Macon (Reed Diamond), while Noah hangs precariously from the ceiling, testing the restraints. It’s nothing new, really, but the scene still works quite well, as the show takes its time to slowly go through the steps of getting ready to flee.

Stealing the master’s seal and forging freedom papers. All in a day’s work.

Now most shows could let this stand, slowly building up the plan each week until the group is ready to escape. The show even has its own form of a mystery, with a song that contains the instructions that must be deciphered in order to escape to the North. One moment of triumph in this episode is that Noah and Henry (Renwick Scott) figure out what part of the song means, and thus are one step closer to escaping. The show even established a fairly brisk timeline of six days, which could allow the show to wait until mid-season before pulling the trigger on the escape, but Underground isn’t one to rest on its laurels. First, the show pulls the rug out from under a carefully laid plan by forcing Noah and Rosalee to immediately go on the run after Rosalee kills one of the Macon Plantation’s overseers after the man tries to drunkenly rape her. The two of them escape under a repaired wagon, and now the question is, what the hell is going to happen next? What about the rest of the slaves who planned to escape? How on Earth can Noah and Rosalee survive on the run with no real preparations and having left behind their forged freedom papers? What kind of show will exist now that an escape has actually happened? There is a strong possibility that this audacious choice will actually break the show going forward, if the creators don’t know how to fix the structure they’ve broken, but for now I will applaud the show for throwing caution to the win and not going down a familiar path.

That is not the only twist the show throws in; John and Elizabeth Hawkes find themselves in grave danger as the very first escaped slave, or “cargo” (Jussie Smollett), they try to help ends the episode holding a knife to John’s throat. It’s not looking good for John, especially considering only Jessica De Gouw actually gets mentioned in the opening credits. The Hawkes offer an interesting viewpoint in this show, revealing a North that may feel for slaves, but is not yet at the point where many of its citizens are willing to go against the law in order to protect them. It is still years before the Civil War, and seeing a show point out the evil of the North’s willingness to be complicit in the Southern slave trade is a very different look than many shows and movies, which more often show the North as an enlightened bastion of tolerance and social justice that fights against the evil slave practices of the South. Sure, this happens one way or another eventually, but for now the North is full of people who will return runaway slaves to their masters because in the eyes of the law they are still property (the Dred Scott Decision having just happened).

The 1850s either threw the best or the worst parties. It could go either way.

What really sets Underground apart is its style. This episode opens with an impressive sequence cross-cutting between two ministers, one black and one white, both preaching to their congregation about how God created the earth. The cutting is seamless and the camera work is exquisite. Everything is strangely dynamic, even though both scenes are rather ordinary. In an instant, it does a perfect job of establishing the contrast between the white land owners and the slaves. Considering it also cuts in Noah and Sam figuring out when they will execute their plan, the sequence also helps advance the plot. Which fits, because this show clearly doesn’t just want to move quickly, it wants to move at warp speed. Part of this is likely because the show only has ten episodes in the season, but there is also a clear desire to keep things moving, creating a stylistic air of excitement that other versions of this show might not have. It’s a dangerous game to play during a season, because it is so easy for a show that moves this quickly to lose itself and go completely off the rails, but for now it adds to the stylistic flair of the show.

The other big thing about this show is its use of modern music. Considering John Legend is one of the executive producers (and Kanye West was originally involved with the show before Legend) this isn’t as surprising as it would normally be, but it does make for a very different experience. The mix between classical and modern music is a bit jarring, but it also continues to add to the energy of the episode, and likely the show as a whole. Underground is wholly committed to being a different kind of show set in the Antebellum, and its music choices help with that. Hearing the X Ambassadors’ ‘Jungle’ at the end of the episode gave the action a little extra pop, and hearing Problem Child’s ‘Good to Be Young’ during a stuffy dinner party at the governor’s mansion where Elizabeth and John attempt to mingle and gain information made what could have been a pretty boring, standard party scene work so much better. The same goes for the dance sequence, which does a good job of portraying how people would actually try to have fun at parties, even in the late 1850s. I imagine these music choices aren’t always going to work so well, but it’s refreshing to see a show willing to take these kinds of risks. The fact that this show has strong writing and characters is great, but its unique style is a big reason why Underground has a real chance to be something truly special, as long as it doesn’t let its breakneck pace get too out of hand.

Notes and Observations

What a horrible game…

  • Amirah Vann’s Ernestine brings a lot to a role that could have been thankless. She has made the best of a bad situation to put her children in the best position possible, and she is ingenious in using Toby Nichols’s T.R. Macon to get Rosalee out of trouble for stealing Tom Macon’s seal.
  • I now understand why Adina Porter has not been used as much this year on The 100, as she shows up here as Pearly Mae. She has an excellent scene with Rosalee when Pearly Mae explains how she knew she was in love with her husband.
  • Christopher Meloni is in this show. He didn’t do much this episode so I don’t really know who his character is, but he is always a welcome sight in any show (other than True Blood, because he was a part of the unintentional horror that was Season 5).
  • Andrea Frankle as Suzanna Macon continues the work of Sarah Paulson in 12 Years a Slave in making the wife of the the plantation owner just as bad if not much worse than her husband in her treatment of the slaves.
  • Even a would-be rapist gets a bit of humanizing on this show, as the drunken overseer tells a woeful tale about his lost wife that almost makes you feel for him–before he gets angry and attempts to commit a heinous act by trying to rape Rosalee.
  • I don’t know how I feel about Cato (Alano). There is a lot of potential for a character like him, but two-face characters like this always have to tread a fine line, and it remains to be seen whether this show will know how to walk it or not.
  • Those railroad tracks had to be torturously heavy, and the show did a great job of showing the grit of the characters in trying to keep them from touching the ground.
  • Seriously, though, I don’t know how the show comes back from two of its characters escaping in the third episode. The show can’t really snap back without losing all credibility, but somehow these characters have to figure out how to reunite with the rest. Maybe they will get caught and then sprung by the others before they can be sold to worse slavers, or hung.

Episode Grade: B+

Will I watch more?

  • Probably. This show has the look of being a really good show, and is only ten episodes long. That said, this may be one I actually wait until the season is over to see, simply because it feels more like a binge show than a week-to-week show. But we’ll see.

That’s it for this week’s TV Roulette. Tune in next week for more. Until then, remember that dancing on a piano is always the best way to get everyone’s attention.