Slavery. Did you cringe? Did you roll your eyes? Did your body tense up, afraid of what may come next but hoping the following string of words were not a diatribe on race relations in America, because, frankly, you were not in ‘the mood’ to discuss? All of the above are common reactions to a word whose ugly concept is often hidden in the tales of American history. Tonight, and every Wednesday, ‘Underground’ on WGN America relays the painful truth of history in a stunningly beautiful and complexly written way, quickly making this antebellum tale of heroes, villains, and people you cannot quite classify, a mainstay in American homes. But can a story of one of the most polarizing subjects in American history, now being described in some history books as part of the European and African “immigration” during the formation of the 13 colonies, gain the viewership needed to be a success? The 2.3 million viewers on premiere night and an audience that grew by a million the following week, would make that answer a simple, “yes”.
If you read the one line synopsis on WGN’s website, ‘Underground’ is about a group of slaves escape from a plantation in Georgia. With a subject so uncomfortable, one wold think that the success of the show would be very limited. Is America ready to face their past, when we currently have a possible President Trump paired with Black Lives Matter protests, Immigration Reform and protesters alike, and Anti-Gay laws at the center of every media source, daily? Anthony Hemingway, director and executive producer known for blockbuster film ‘Red Tails’, as well as television series ‘Treme’, ‘The Wire’, ‘Shameless’, and now, ‘Underground’, thinks that we are,
“I believe we are. I really do believe that. I am so interested in the human condition and I think that as we go through life, and the condition that we are in right now, we need it…Also, the great thing about it was the way they were looking at telling the story, which was exciting. They looked at it in a way that was like ‘Red Tails’…an action thriller that got to present heroes.”
And who is “they”? Unlike in DJ turned snapchat motivational speaker, DJ Khaled’s snaps, this they wants to see ‘Undeground’ win, probably more so than anyone tied to the project. “They” are creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski.
Misha and Joe seem to rebuke the notion that this is a slave story. In fact, when Misha shared her idea of the show with Joe, his first thought upon driving home was,
“Poor, sweet Misha. There’s probably been four or five shows about the Underground Railroad. It’s arguably the greatest story in American history. But there wasn’t. Nobody had done it yet, and we couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
And thus the aptly named, ‘Underground’ was created. In researching the stories, Misha and Joe both found that ,’truth was stranger than fiction’. The were able to compile some of the most interesting stories, and use them as motivation, context, and a starting point to weave some of the most complex characters to date. Oftentimes in Underground, the characters that history books tell us to sympathize with, like Alano Miller’s character, intelligent yet shifty slave, Cato, get met with a side-eye and disgust, while characters like Chris Meloni’s, August Pullman, slave catcher, often gets something not as endearing as sympathy, but equally as powerful, understanding.When asked how it felt transitioning from America’s most loved detective to America’s most controversial profession, Meloni happily welcomed the role,
“You know, that never bothers me, never comes into any of my considerations. I just look for great writing. If my character’s actions happen to be a bit, possibly, reprehensible, if you want to put a label on them, I just always look at if I can understand, and defend them, myself…I thought of m character as a white slave. Just caught in a different system…I was jus as beholden to something. I don’t think he finds reward, or any nobility. It’s nothing personal.”
These type of complexities in character arch and story is what makes ‘Underground’ the record breaking series it has become for WGN and not merely a show about slaves, which of course, has merit in itself. Instead, viewers have the opportunity to be entertained, educated, and educate through ‘Underground’ and the dialogue that it may create, “We are telling a story about the revolution, not the occupation”. And while you may not tune in for the revolution, you will definitely enjoy the entertainment value that the amazing cast of Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge, Alano Miller, Marc Blucas, Chris Meloni, Renwick Scott, Jessica De Gouw, Amirah Vann, and Adina Porter bring forth in their characters. Sony/Tribune knew exactly what they were doing when they picked “Underground’ as the show to back. Joe’s goal was to gain an audience that labeled ‘Underground’ as their new favorite show, and according to ratings, he succeeded.