My local cable provider picked up WGN America just in time for the first season -- it has earned a second -- of Misha Green and Joe Popski's series, the first event in a new wave of slavesploitation that will include a remake of Roots and a new Birth of A Nation movie taking the Nat Turner rebellion as its subject. While any slavery show is inescapably a commentary on American race relations, Underground can be enjoyed as a short-season series in the modern mold, full of plot twists, complicated characters and various degrees of darkness, along with some decent action. The plot is simplicity itself; we witness the planning and execution of a mass escape of slaves from a Georgia plantation, though the execution, predictably enough given the twists and complications, doesn't go quite as planned. The opening episode does one thing right above all; it introduces most of the major slave characters in one sequence as two of the escape plotters determine who can be useful or dependable. Characters are identified by name, assigned skills and character traits. It might seem like convenient exposition by some dramatic standards but I'd bet that TV viewers would like more such exposition than they normally get. By giving us a diverse cast of slave characters the creators can have things both ways in their portrayal of slavery. They can give us a crowd-pleasing narrative of resistance while showing the diversity, moral as well as vocational, of slave experience. Inevitably in an ambitious modern TV series you can't have a cast comprised entirely of innocents and moral exemplars, since you want to keep the possibility of betrayal in the air. The best case of this among the slaves is Cato (Alano Miller), trusted enough by the master to be promoted to overseer, self-interested and cunning enough to be a constant threat to the conspirators, yet also the person who starts the breakout ahead of schedule, for reasons of his own, almost immediately after his promotion. With him in the group, solidarity among the "Macon 7" can never be taken for granted. More ambiguous still is Ernestine (Amirah Vann), a privileged house slave and lover of the married master (Reed Diamond), whose daughter -- theirs, in fact -- unexpectedly joins the runaways. Underground is brave enough to show that real passion exists between slave and master and may contribute to self-loathing on both their parts. It's part of a complex brew that makes Ernestine an amoral yet sympathetic character, one willing to murder a fellow slave, who was in on the plot, in order to save her daughter from recapture, and finally willing to murder her lover/master with the comment that they're both going to Hell, only he'll get there first. You can identify a few of the Macon 7 as good guys, but ultimately none of them are squeaky-clean by the end of the season.
Underground hedges its bets a little by foregrounding its white characters early on, but they mostly recede to their more proportionate place as the season progresses. Along with Tom Hakes, the master, we're introduced to his brother John (Marc Blucas), who's become a lawyer in the north and is summoned back south to become Tom's campaign manager (whatever that means in the antebellum era) in an upcoming election. Tom doesn't know that John and his wife Elizabeth (Jessica DeGouw) are abolitionists who will turn their new home into a station on the Underground Railroad. The preservation of their secret is the constant subplot of the first season, while we wait for members of the Macon 7 to show up at their doorstep. This subplot gets mighty melodramatic if not soap-operatic at times, as when a U.S. Marshall finds out the secret but promises silence in return for sex from Elizabeth. Unsurprisingly, we learn that John's hands are not exactly clean; he'd once provided legal services for a slave auction, as we learn when a violent escapee whose wife was sold on that occasion shows up suddenly to take the Hawkeses hostage. The point of all this isn't to reduce everything to shades of gray, however, since on a show like Underground there's very little uncertainty about who the good guys and bad guys are, even after all their flaws or redeeming qualities are taken into account. The one exception to that may be the slave-hunter August Pullman (Christopher Meloni), who seems simply to be too much of a badass to be dismissed as a villain, though the idea that he does his thing for economic reasons (as opposed to anyone else?) doesn't really add much depth to him. I expected to see him dead by the end of the season but he seems to be unkillable, though many have tried. Thankfully Underground hasn't been killed, and I've tried and given up on enough shows this season to appreciate its virtues. If not a true top-tier series, I'd still put it in the top ten of the new shows I've watched this season.