Underground begins with a black slave running for his life, hidden under the cover of night. It’s 1857, but the music scoring his escape is Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” the artist’s 2013 punk-rap anthem tearing into the fallacy of a post-race America. Electric guitar riffs and synthesized beats enter and the opening minutes to Underground’s pilot are an uncompromising statement of anachronism that is the show’s thesis: Forget what you think “historical dramas” are supposed to be. This is unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Premiering March 9 on WGN America from Misha Green (Sons of Anarchy) and Joe Pokaski (Marvel’s Daredevil), Underground follows a band of Southern slaves plotting an all-or-nothing escape to freedom several years before the American Civil War. But, rather than a sepia-tinted period drama or a revisionist fantasy, Underground is a bold genre-mashing romp that taps into its creative team’s experience with superheroes and sci-fi to elevate a historical drama into something otherworldly. Roots this is not. Underground isn’t afraid to get blood in its fingernails.
To get a sense of what makes this show different — and maybe the next big thing — here are six reasons why Underground should be your next mandatory weekly appointment.
It applies sci-fi world-building to real American history.
Star Wars, Mass Effect, Harry Potter: What these share in common are worlds that feel real. Tatooine and Hogwarts are made up — nobody has ever been to those places because nobody can — and yet die-hard fans can tell you what they’re like better than their hometown. But we sometimes take for granted the real places of our own history. By today’s standards, 19th-century America isn’t just strange, it’s practically alien.
Both Green and Pokaski worked on Heroes, and any fan can tell you how Heroes excelled in world-building (in its first season). Underground uses Heroes’ principles and applies it to the antebellum South, vividly painting the divide between slaves and slave owners. There’s a tangible contrast between the plantation owners’ comfy, ostentatious parties and rigid values to the warmer netherworld of the slaves. Swap the clothes, location, and the fact that this happened, and Underground could be a sci-fi from Edgar Rice Burroughs. These are people who live on the same land, but their worlds could not be farther apart.
It turns the superhero into a movement.
Superhero movies didn’t become popular in the 21st century because they’re crowd-pleasing CGI action movies. Above all, superheroes are modern analogs to ancient gods that fit Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythological principles. This is why superheroes smash box offices around the world, and Underground channels those themes, upping the ante by turning the superhero from an individual into a movement.
The show has an ensemble cast, but at its center is a slave named Noah (Aldis Hodge) who stumbles upon a song carved on the wall. He learns it’s a code that maps the long road to the free North, and the song becomes a call to arms that compels Noah to band together slaves to use their unique talents to become free. Slaves who can read, slaves with imposing size and strength, and slaves with exceptional woodworking come together like a 19th-century X-Men who fight to earn their destiny.
And like superheroes, there are sidekicks eager to help and villains standing in their way.
Nothing is as simple as black and white.
To say slavery was a divisive issue is simplifying everything that led to the Civil War, but it was. Abolitionism was a political hot topic that was avoided in dinner party conversation, and though the fight to end slavery had its supporters. … Well, good luck convincing the wealthy elite to give up their labor force.
Marc Blucas and Jessica De Gouw (Arrow fans remember her as the Huntress) play the show’s most prominent activists, John and Elizabeth Hawkes, a young couple who risk their social standing for the cause. But allies like them are few and far between; in the sprawling South where Underground takes place, shady figures who aren’t what they seem populate this part of the world.
Like Westeros or zombie-plagued Georgia, nothing is simply black and white. Characters like the mysterious August (Christopher Meloni) and the fearsome slave Cato (Alano Miller) upend expectations over who fights for what. There are those who look out for themselves, and Underground does a stellar job at making those the devils to watch out for.
The music is killer.
When you have John Legend as a TV show’s music producer it’s unsurprising it’ll have a righteous sound. But Legend’s anachronous choices are more than just Baz Luhrmann pizzazz.
The R&B and blues rock soundtrack to Underground emphasizes the struggles of the South in this tumultuous time. Blood will be shed, and this pain will inform its people of their suffering, which becomes their music. 150 years separate now and then, but the music — and the suffering — hasn’t changed much.
For Arrow fans, Jessica De Guow is on fire.
Speaking as an Arrow fan who admittedly didn’t like the Huntress much, De Gouw is absolutely on in Underground. She’s bonkers (with surprisingly legitimate reason) and is characterized as a modern, forward-thinking person stuck in the wrong time. Everyone in Underground is fantastic — I’m a big fan of Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s quiet pain as Rosalee — but watch out for De Guow, who comes into the show with a literal smash. She could come out of this a huge star.
It’s a genre-romp that is grounded in reality.
Underground has a crazy soundtrack and camera work and editing straight out of a ’70s B-movie, but this show isn’t Django Unchained-lite. There is a lot I love about Django Unchained, but Tarantino made a wild fantasy which made a priority out of homaging a bygone genre. (For the record, I found nothing about Django Unchained “offensive,” but it is a loud, bombastic piece of revisionist cinema.)
Despite its style, Underground is a grounded story in a reality that is neither insulting nor distracting. I can easily see high school history teachers screening episodes and it wouldn’t be a wasted effort, because nothing in Underground feels wasted.
Underground premieres on WGN America March 9.