MCN Review: WGN America's 'Underground'

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WGN America shines a light on the Northern escape of slaves from the South in its new original series Underground.

The series, created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, stars Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton) as Noah, a field slave who has tried to escape his slaveowners several times, only to be caught and beaten for his transgressions. Yet his thirst for freedom is never quenched, so – armed with a map outlining the road to the North -- he plans another attempt at escape, but this time he tries to bring in others to join him on his journey.

Meanwhile inside the house serving the plantation owning family is Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who along with her mother Ernestine (Amirah Vann), lives a more comfortable existence than the slaves in the field, yet slaves they remain.

A chance encounter in which Rosalee is ordered to tend to Noah’s wounds from a violent lashing due to his last escape attempt sets the stage for an eventual joining of the two as they both look for the freedom that exists for themselves and other slaves outside of Georgia.

Noah’s plan is not without fear or consequences, and the series’ initial episodes brilliantly capture the grit and passion of the slaves’ desire to be free and the perils they face in obtaining their goal. The action within the plot will have viewers on the edge as executive producer John Legend cleverly weaves both contemporary and period music to gin up the often thrilling scenes incumbent to the planning of the slaves’ ultimate escape. The opening scene in particular sets the tone for the series as a slave runner is pursued through the woods to the beat of Kanye West’s "Black Skinhead."

Underground also benefits from a strong supporting cast, which includes Noah’s partners Moses (Mykelti Williamson), Sam (Johnny Ray Gill) Henry (Renwick Scott) and Zeke (Theodus Crane), as well as his nemesis Cato (Alano Miller). Outside the plantation, farmer August Pullman (Christopher Meloni), abolitionist lawyer John Hawkes (Marc Blucas) and his wife Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw) contribute a different, nuanced perspective to the main slave escape plot.

While the series’ title is based on the real-life Underground Railroad that allowed slaves to escape the southern states through an intricate network of trails, much of the series’ early action takes place on the plantation. Undoubtedly future episodes will further weave that historical element into what is a very entertaining series that will have viewers anxiously awaiting the next weekly episode.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.