Or Nah? is a feature where we watch and review the first episode of a new TV show. We’ll let you know if it’s worth checking out. As always, these reviews are the opinion of the reviewer, but we’ll try to adequately explain why you should or shouldn’t give the show a chance and provide shows for comparison.
Underground | S1E1: The Macon 7 (Pilot) | Wednesdays WGN 10pm – 10 episode season
Underground is a 10-episode series surrounding the Underground Railroad, set in Georgia in 1837, twenty-eight years before the ratification of the 13th amendment that abolished slavery. The creative talents of Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, with Grammy-winning executive producer John Legend, helm the show. Underground follows the plan and escape of a group of slaves from the fictional Macon plantation.
The pilot starts off at a frantic pace. Thanks to John Legend, music plays a major, and at times distracting role in the series. The first song in you hear is Black Skinhead by Kanye West, during its 3 minutes you witness the escape and capture of a slave, Noah (Aldis Hodge), and the birth of a child. As the episode unfolds we are quickly introduced to the series regulars: August (Christopher Meloni) a farmer and occasional ally; Rosalee (Jurnee Smolett-Bell) the house slave and daughter of head house slave Ernestine (Amirah Vann); Cato (Alano Miller), currently snitching-ass-snitch slave, although he appears to redeem himself at a later time; John Hawkes (Mark Blucas) and his wife Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw), abolitionists and relatives the master of Macon plantation.
The three main plots of the pilot: August’s knowledge and use of the Underground Railroad, Noah’s plan to escape, and The Hawkes fighting for abolition of slavery.
During his brief escape Noah received a map of the Underground Railroad in the form of a song and devises a plan. In an attempt to add some levity to a very heavy topic, this plan is sorted in an Ocean’s 11-style scene, determining whom he can trust, their strengths and weaknesses, and a timeline for escape, which is less than a week. It is obvious Noah had a taste of freedom and will do anything to claim it. Rosalee and Ernestine are strong women, working in tandem to keep the Big House in order without upsetting plantation owner Tom Macon’s (Reed Diamond) wife Suzanna (Andrea Frankle), a petty and vindictive woman as is demonstrated throughout several scenes. The Hawkes are trying to find a way to live a world where it is illegal to think that the lives of slaves are worth the same as those who are free. The first episode was really used to set the pace and urgency of what is to come for what will be later known as The Macon 7.
- Much like another WGN show, Outsiders, the strongest performances belong to the women. Smollett’s delicate and brave portrayal of Rosalee was stirring, especially during a scene where she takes the lashings to the forearm for her 8-year-old brother, then hours later she is serving the meal at a dinner party for the Macons, and no one was the wiser. There is obvious tension between Ernestine (Vann) and Suzanna (Frankle); my assumption is that Tom is the father of at least one of Ernestine’s 3 children. I’d like to see these two actresses in a true face-off, but being this is set in the era of slavery, there is no satisfactory ending to that type of interaction.
- The cast: I cannot think of one casting misstep on the show. Those meant to be related, look the part. Strong and handsome Noah, snitching-ass Cato is perfection; Theodus Crane and Mykelti Williamson were also pleasant surprises.
- The story: I am engaged and invested in the characters after the first episode. I want them to reach the North and find freedom. I will tune in to see this unfold.
- There is no overt slave accent. The Macon plantation slaves enunciate their words; the only “Yessa massa” affectations are completely put-on for white people. I’ve always felt the excessive slave talk was dehumanizing and took away from the portrayal of slaves as people.
- Thanks to John Legend, the music was soulful felt appropriate for most scenes.
- The music: at times it felt as if the show was the backdrop to a music video set in the south during the 19th century.
- The story: I’m trying to figure out how they will keep the audience engaged in watching people hide, run, and trudge through mud on a weekly basis. Yes, this works in its way for The Walking Dead, but we know how the story of slavery ends, and we’re still dealing with the fallout over one hundred and fifty years later.
- Possibly having to hate Christopher Meloni for 10 episodes. This isn’t really bad overall, just bad personally. His character seems conflicted with providing for his own and doing what is right as a human being.
- The n-word. I knew what I was getting into when I tuned in. I knew I would be subjected to the continued onslaught of derogatory terms towards blacks, but I did not expect to want to slap the bullshit out of Suzanna’s mouth when she said the word with such venom. I tried to research how many times you can say the n-word in a show with no such luck; it must be subjective based on other aspects of the episode. The kicker is during the intro when Kanye West’s Black Skinhead is playing the n-word has been censored. Contextually, it seems the same.
*According to a report on Deadline, Underground set the record as the highest performing original series since WGN dipped its toe in the waters of curating their own programs. It beat out the premieres of both Salem and Outsiders. A show about slavery with a black female writer/producer kicked butt on this fledgling network. #blackgirlmagic
Outsiders series premiere
Any period piece based on something so shameful as slavery is going to be difficult to translate to screen in a respectful way. The content can come across as dramatic for the sake of drama and not good storytelling. My hope is that Misha Green and Joe Pokaski have built a world where there is a little laughter mixed with sorrow, joy, and triumph for these characters. Without that balance the audience will feel beaten up every week. This show is also coming at a time where race and race relations are being tested. If done right, it could spark some conversations about what is going on in the world in 2016.