Review: Underground 1×1 (US: WGN America)

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, WGN America

The global slave trade, especially the Atlantic slave trade, is one of the most horrifying aspects of relatively recent history. While slavery, of course, was nothing new and was practised in both Africa and the Middle East at the same time as in the US and Europe, it’s the numbers involved and industralisation of it that makes it horrifying, with as many as 12 million people enslaved and transported until slavery was abolished by the end of the 19th century.

Yet while the Nazis and the Holocaust have been the subject of condemnatory films and TV shows for decades now, only a few US writers and producers have been willing to do something far harder and turn a similar eye onto the actions of not some other nation but the US itself. ABC’s 1977 mini-series Roots was, of course, the most famous:

But since Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained in 2012, the floodgates seem to have opened, with 12 Years of Slave winning Oscars in 2014 and a remake of Roots due this year on History:

Before that, we also have WGN America’s Underground, which looks at the ‘underground railroad’ that helped slaves in the US to escape to freedom, usually in British North America (aka Canada). The story focuses on a few principal groups:

  1. Slaves on Reed Diamond’s (Journeyman, Dollhouse) plantation in Antebellum, Georgia, including Leverage‘s Aldis Hodge and True Blood‘s Jurnee Smollett-Bell. They’re all planning to escape.
  2. A white lawyer (Marc Blucas from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Necessary Roughness) and his wife (Jessica De Gouw from Arrow and Deadline Gallipoli), who are recruited to run the railroad. Guess who’s going to head their way.
  3. Various slavers, bounty hunters and Good Samaritans, including L&O:SVU‘s Christopher Meloni. Guess what they’re going to do with the escaped slaves.

On the one hand, the show takes great pains to be as realistic as possible. While none of the characters are based on historical figures (although Blucas and De Gouw’s ‘John and Elizabeth Hawkes’ could be inspired by John and Esther Hawks), the terrible abuses meted out to slaves, general attitudes towards slaves and so on are all based in reality. The show is even shot in huts and cabins where slaves were housed back in the 19th century. When focused on that kind of detail, the show does sterling work in depicting the terrible inhumanity of it all, even if it is a bit hard for oldies like me to see and hear it all with the continual darkness and mumbling in Southern accents.

On the other, Underground also takes great pains to be as ‘with it’ as possible, with flashy camerawork, a modern soundtrack, time jumps, slow motion, and dialogue that’s often no more than a decade old. Frequently, these are action hero slaves, not real people, and the combination of old and new styles can be quite jarring and works to the show’s detriment. 

The fact it isn’t based on historical figures doesn’t help, either, since neither the characters nor the actors who play them are really very three-dimensional. They’re representations of ideas, rather than anyone you could care about.

As of yet, we’re not yet at the ‘underground’ stage of the narrative, so it’s hard to tell whether it’s going to get more interesting as a drama, rather than simply as a demonstration of man’s inhumanity to man. It’s WGN America, so I don’t imagine the show ever becoming great. All the same, a reasonably good start, even if it didn’t really make me want to watch any more of it.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.