Time for a pop culture break. Yup, Trump’s still president, and we can’t change that. But every once in a while we need a break from hearing about President Trump and the seemingly endless flow of ridiculous news he produces. So today, I have a tv recommendation for you. My favorite new tv show from last season returns for its second season this week: Underground, on WGN channel, Wednesday at 10pm.
What It’s About
Underground is executive produced by John Legend. The title refers to the Underground Railroad, and while the show is a slave story, it’s styled as a fast-paced thriller that will have your heart racing pretty much the entire hour. The story focuses on a group of slaves – among them, two main characters Noah and Rosalee – as they endure a harrowing journey trying to escape from their Georgia plantation. Their attempted escape is the show’s central focus, but additional storylines follow other slaves who remain back at the plantation (including Rosalee’s mother and little brother), the plantation owners, the town’s white abolitionists and the bounty hunters who search for the escaped slaves.
Underground’s first season debuted to overwhelmingly positive reviews. The few less-than-great reviews criticized the show for playing the story for thrills or entertainment. These reviewers thought the show was too glossy for a slave narrative, or that it trivialized the sin of slavery. However, in a recent interview, Underground’s co-creator Misha Green said the thriller framing was intentional. She explained that she didn’t feel the fear that most people feel when looking back at that period in history and that “freed” her in terms of story-telling.
We’ve always said that this show is not about the occupation, it’s about the revolution,” Green says. “It’s a story about people fighting back against incredible injustice, and that’s a simple story. Everybody wants to watch the underdog win.
All of those reviews were based on screenings of only the first four episodes, when the show was just beginning to take off. Underground just got better from there. And the most stunning episode of the season, Cradle, didn’t come until episode 7. (I don’t want to say any more than that, in case you decide to watch). And don’t take any of this “glossed up entertainment” talk to mean that the show shies away from depicting the horrors of slavery. There were plenty of scenes in Season 1 that were nearly too painful to watch. And every single week when I watched the show, I always woke up the next morning still thinking about it, the tension fresh in my mind as if I had just turned off the tv five minutes earlier.
Who’s In It
Propelling all of this is a cast overflowing with talent. The stellar cast includes: Aldis Hodge as Noah (he played my favorite geeky conman on Levarage), Jurnee Smollet-Bell as Rosalee (she’s been on such hit shows as True Blood, Parenthood, and Friday Night Lights, but for some of you, she might be most recognizable from way back in the day as Michelle Tanner’s school friend Denise on Full House), Mykelti Williamson (from pretty much everything, most recently in Fences), Alano Miller (Jane the Virgin), Adina Porter (True Blood), Christopher Meloni (Law & Order SVU), Mark Blucas (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), James Lafferty (One Tree Hill), and the list goes on.
John Legend will make an appearance this season as Frederick Douglass. (When I first heard this news, it occurred to me that perhaps this was why Trump seemed to believe that Douglass is still alive. Since we know that Trump often confuses what he sees on tv with reality).
What It Sounds Like
And almost playing a character of its own on the show is the rousing soundtrack. This is one area the shows critics point to as evidence of their critiques. The soundtrack consists of contemporary rock, R&B, hip-hop and more, along with some gospel. Critics think it’s too jarring, that the modern sounds pulls viewers out of the storyline. But I haven’t experienced that, and have only found the soundtrack to add to the thrill and enjoyment of the show. The very first episode of the first season opens with Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead”, the lyrics and pace of which both perfectly match the scene unfolding before us.
And Legend says “[u]sing contemporary music takes it off the museum wall and makes it feel urgent and necessary. It was a creative decision made from the beginning, we didn’t stumble into it.” Music supervisors (Laura Karpman and R&B artist Raphael Saadiq) also felt that giving the soundtrack a modern sensibility made the characters more relatable as human beings, instead of viewers seeing them as distant historical figures.
How You Can Watch
Since the new season premieres on Wednesday, I haven’t given you much time to catch up if you haven’t already been watching. But it’s only the one season, 10 episodes total. So maybe you can pull an all nighter to get caught up! The show is available for purchase on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play. If you don’t want to purchase it, WGN will be running a marathon on Wednesday beginning at noon. Set your DVRs. It’s worth it!!
And one last thing: I just recently read this interesting NY Times article by “Another Brooklyn” author Jacqueline Woodson about a Slavery and Underground Railroad Tour she and her children took in New York City. The article is part of a series for the paper’s Travel section about different Underground Railroad locations around the country. Worth a read if you have the time.