TV Review - Underground

Aldis Hodge (left) and Jurnee Smollett-Bell
I was immediately taken out of the narrative when anachronistic music is played on the soundtrack. The series opens with a Kanye West song. The second episode is capped with a song sung by recent, Oscar-nominee The Weeknd.

Yet, for any one who perhaps thought the Underground Railroad from which this show takes its name was an easy thing, this string of ten episodes puts its difficulty and all of its intricacies on stark display. It's perhaps not as visceral as 12 Years a Slave or even the ABC series Roots (1977), but it does have its rough moments.

As many critics have already pointed out, the show itself is essentially a prison escape or a kind of reverse heist. There are interesting and even exciting thrills to be had scene after scene as the narrative, driven by writers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, barrels to the inevitable freedom of the slaves trapped in a cotton plantation in Georgia, 1857.

Of course, the American Civil War would drastically change the landscape, but for some slaves, they had little to no more patience and needed to make freedom for themselves. They didn't want to wait for liberation or some outside salvation. Some were born with no patience for it. Some had to have it run out.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell stars as Rosalee, a girl who works as a slave in the main plantation house. This is a privilege that only certain slaves get, and mostly only slave-girls or women. There comes some comforts or luxuries, but yet, she still is looked at as dirt and most times treated as such.

Aldis Hodge (Friday Night Lights and Leverage) co-stars as Noah, a slave who most likely was born with no patience. If he had any, it was probably quickly used up, as evidence with the scars on his back. The look in his eye at times screams a life of pain and dehumanization. Noah is one of many male slaves who works the cotton fields or other outside, physical labor, but he becomes the leader of a group planning to escape and go north.

The comparison to heist movies starts here. Noah is not unlike the titular character of Ocean's Eleven (2001). He gathers a team of other slaves and they plan step-by-step how to steal, not necessarily money or jewels as Ocean did, but instead to steal their freedom.

Reed Diamond (Homicide: Life on the Streets and Franklin & Bash) plays Tom Macon, the plantation owner. He seems very much like Michael Fassbender's Oscar-nominated role in 12 Years a Slave. Marc Blucas (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Necessary Roughness) plays John Hawkes, the brother of Tom. John is very much like Brad Pitt's character in 12 Years a Slave.

Christopher Meloni (Oz and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) plays August Pullman, a single father it seems who appears to be a good man just trying to raise his son. However, it becomes evident that he's not as good as he first seems. At least, he works as a kind of bounty hunter of slaves.

Because it's about a slave fighting back and perhaps more than just his release, because Green and Pokaski's narrative involve this kind of thrust, it treads on similar ground as Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. Yet, it's absent the ridiculous humor and sometimes satire. This series dabbles more in realism rather than comedy, which Tarantino can't help but indulge.

This series doesn't have that kind of entertainment value, but it's not the slog that 12 Years a Slave was. There is the thrill of the prison escape or heist elements. The show also has aspects of survival, of endurance through this human atrocity like some films of the Holocaust have been. There was a moment in the third episode that reminded me of Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, involving Noah having to hold a heavy object over his head for hours on end.

Once Noah and Rosalee escape the plantation and go on the run, the series is injected with a decent amount of adrenaline and action. It also allows more powerful interactions for the characters and better development of them. That development is not just for Noah and Rosalee but also for the characters who tag along on the escape.

Alano Miller (Jane the Virgin) plays Cato, a guy who is face-scarred and who is analogous to Samuel L. Jackson's character in Django Unchained. Mykelti Williamson (Boomtown and Justified) plays Moses, a one-eyed father. Renwick D. Scott II (Treme) plays Henry, a teenage boy who looks up to Noah, and Theodus Crane (The Walking Dead) plays Zeke, the overweight one.

With the exception of Zeke and Henry, a lot of the characters are well-established in the first, four episodes. Yet, it does set-up what could be a great back-half run.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-MA-LSV.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Wednesdays at 10PM on WGN America.


  1. Reed Diamond (Homicide: Life on the Streets and Franklin & Bash) plays Tom Macon, the plantation owner. He seems very much like Michael Fassbender's Oscar-nominated role in 12 Years a Slave.

    Not really. Diamond's Tom Macon is a far cry from Fassbender's role in "12 YEARS A SLAVE". Macon does not strike me as borderline psychotic. And he knows how to project a friendly aura.


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