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Review: WGN's 'Underground' explores slavery, and a hidden past

"Underground" is WGN America's newcomer on the Underground Railroad Credit: WGN America

"Underground," WGN America, Wednesday, 10

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Noah (Aldis Hodge), a blacksmith and slave on the Macon plantation, is determined to escape his bondage, and rallies support. His idea is safety in numbers — the more slaves he can get to go with him, the better chance of survival on the 600-mile trip north. The master of Macon, Tom Macon (Reed Diamond), is mostly distracted in planning a run for the Senate, and enlists John Hawkes (Marc Blucas) to run the campaign. In fact, John and his wife, Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw), are ardent abolitionists. Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Ernestine (Amirah Vann) and brutal slavedriver Cato (Alano Miller) — himself a slave — have no idea what Noah has planned — yet. Meanwhile, haunting the woods is a mysterious slave catcher, August Pullman (Christopher Meloni). Set to a score overseen by executive producer John Legend’s production company, Get Lifted, the series was directed by Anthony Hemingway (“Treme.”)

MY SAY Watching a 10-hour TV series (with commercials) about man’s inhumanity to man, and especially to women, is no one’s idea of an idle pastime. “Underground” is not an idle pastime. So what’s the best approach to viewing and how did that inform the choices WGN appears to have ultimately made? Edification should certainly be a factor. Watch and learn, or at least hope to. The Underground Railroad is a vastly important subject in American history, after all, except that WGN is not in the edification business, and so the actual particulars of the “railroad” are sparse.

In fact, of the first four episodes for review, the actual slave escape doesn’t happen until the fourth hour. Emotional engagement? That’s essential, but “Underground” isn’t always emotionally engaging either, and sometimes maddeningly diffident. You almost need more fury, more brutality, to keep the story afloat or at least propel it, or propel you.

But that doesn’t happen here, except sporadically. In fact, “Underground” has different ideas about how to proceed — and they might even ultimately prove to be the right ones. Foremost, the series doesn’t want to burn out viewers or story, so instead works on character development.

Everyone presents one face to the world, another to themselves — a survival strategy or coping skill. Smollett-Bell’s Rosalee says little, keeps her head down and eyes straight ahead. Vann’s Ernestine reveals that “Oh yes, I’ve imagined thousands of different lives, but I work hard to make sure this one is as easy as it can be.” Miller’s Cato — one assumes — was brutalized early in life, half of his face carrying the scars as proof, but he’s also the eager proxy for the slave master. Meloni’s Pullman is either savior — or the very worst element of an evil institution. All are wearing masks, and “Underground” works best when it explores what’s underneath them.

But it’s clear from the outset that this story belongs to Hodge’s Noah; he’s the one who will drive this story north, mile after mile, through the woods and through the mud, past the slave hunters and ultimately to freedom. His performance, a good one, promises that that emotional engagement and release will eventually arrive. Stick with him — but you have no choice anyway.

BOTTOM LINE Good newcomer that can drag, but Hemingway's direction keeps this one on track.

GRADE B+

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