‘Underground’ Is a Slavery Story Wrapped in a Heist Thriller

Underground is the rare series that feels both uniquely of the times and slightly behind them.

On the one hand, the story of a group of slaves plotting their escape from a Georgia plantation fits in perfectly with our current cultural moment, in which the supply of stories centering people of color has finally begun to inch towards demand and various controversies have led to the reconsideration of dominant narratives about slavery. On the other, Underground‘s most obvious predecessor isn’t the unvarnished brutality of Twelve Years a Slave or the stylized revisionism of Django Unchained, two recent and pointedly unorthodox tales of enduring and escaping bondage. It’s Roots, the epic historical miniseries rapidly closing in on its thirtieth anniversary — and in true keeping with current trends, the subject of a star-studded remake premiering this Memorial Day.

In the spirit of Roots, Underground is a sweeping work of historical fiction that feels reverse-engineered to be a capital-e Event, though Roots’ episode-a-night format was actually a ploy to get a risky program off the air quickly that accidentally resulted in blockbuster success. Co-created by Heroes alumni Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, the ten-episode series may not feature any A-listers in front of the camera, but it has the blessing of executive producer John Legend, who produced the spiritual-tinged theme song and finagled Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” for Underground‘s cartoonishly anachronistic opening sync. (Legend’s involvement with Underground feels like a natural progression from his contribution to Selma, not to mention his striking co-performance with Common during last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy.) It’s also a clear attempt on the part of home network WGN America to continue the momentum acquired from its most recent original series, Outsiders, which has proven to be a modest hit.

And like Roots, Underground feels more radical in its subject matter and set of protagonists than its execution. Because in both Noah (Aldis Hodge), the would-be mastermind of a group runaway, and John Hawkes (Marc “Riley from Buffy” Blucas, not to be confused with the star of another 19th century period piece who shares his character’s name), an abolitionist lawyer who volunteers with the Railroad that gives the series its name, we have two fairly conventional heroes’ journeys: the young man who rises to the occasion and becomes a leader of the oppressed, and the older man who has a moral awakening and begins to put his money, and possibly his livelihood, where his mouth is.

In a twist that’s too neat by half, Noah is enslaved on a plantation presided over by John’s own brother Tom (Reed Diamond), an antebellum carpetbagger who married into Southern royalty with his eye on a Georgia Senate seat. While neither Tom nor his pregnant wife Suzanna (Andrea Frankie) — a textbook example of the toxic white femininity, founded on the subjugation and outsourcing of domestic labor to slaves, documented in Thavolia Glymph’s phenomenal Out of the House of Bondage get the comeuppance they deserve in the four episodes provided to critics, the knowledge that Tom’s dream job will be worthless in just six years tastes sweet indeed.

It’s the daily life of Tom’s plantation, and the internal hierarchies within it, that drive Underground — a potential problem, given that its entire premise is leaving this setting behind. We see the divide between relatively comfortable house slaves, including Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell, sister of Empire‘s equally genetically blessed Jussie Smollett) and her mother Ernestine (Amirah Vann), and field laborers like Noah; between the well-heeled likes of Tom and working-class whites like overseer Bill (P.J. Marshall); between Tom and Ernestine’s sons, star-crossed childhood playmates. Underground is at its best when it lets these social chasms illustrate themselves, as when the two children cause a wagon crash and only the slave gets a beating. Sometimes, however, it can’t resist pointing them out. We don’t need smug head slave Cato (Alano Miller) to say he thinks “I ain’t like everyone else,” but Underground has him do it anyway.

That tendency to spell out its points in 72-point font pervades Underground, which favors a tonal register of borderline-camp melodrama over gritty realism. The horrors of slavery, from separated families to child killing, are absolutely part of Underground‘s world. They’re just not lingered on quite as long as the likes of Twelve Years’ whipping scene, and they’re often counterbalanced with stylistic flourishes. A scene where Noah lays out his escape dream-team briefly slips into Ocean’s Eleven heist thriller mode — just swap out “pickpocket” and “munitions expert” for “carpenter” and “literate preacher.” A tryst between Tom and longtime mistress Ernestine involves the latter pouring wine over her own naked body. We know that John’s wife Elizabeth (Jessica de Gouw), who’s struggling with infertility, has gotten over her inhibitions and committed to the cause because she can-cans on top of a piano, mid-fancy party. Oh, and Christopher Meloni’s hanging around as a slave hunter, by far the character least integrated into the central story line.

But as Shonda Rhimes has proven, melodrama can be radical in its own right when it spotlights the right set of characters. The only times Underground truly overplays its hand involve its soundtrack, a confounding mash-up of period-appropriate numbers (spirituals, plaintive Southern strings) and jarringly contemporary songs (“Black Skinhead,” sure, but also the knockoff-Kesha party pop that introduces every predominantly white social gathering). The intended effect, Legend has said, is “to make this feel vibrant and fresh and not simply another period piece,” but the effect is frustratingly inconsistent. If you’re going to go Marie Antoinette, you have to go all the way — and pick better tracks, too.

For the most part, however, Underground feels content to translate the groundbreaking work of its influences for a mass audience that’s now primed to confront America’s original sin…so long as it comes with a central love story (Noah and Rosalee) and plenty of suspense (at least a half-dozen “will they make it/get caught?” scenes in three episodes). Underground doesn’t reintroduce the malevolent mistress into the popular consciousness á la Twelve Years, nor does it push the enormously complicated idea of the ultra-devoted slave as far as Django. Instead, it borrows both those ideas and combines them with a classic story this country was ready to embrace a full four decades ago. Leave it to other industry players to move beyond slaveryUnderground doesn’t want to cover new territory so much as it wants to make sure new-ish ideas stick around — and stay entertaining.

Underground premieres Wednesday, March 9 at 10pm on WGN America.