Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Pilot Review: Underground

Underground (WGN America)
Premiered March 9 at 10pm

WGN America is a network new to original programming, but it’s quickly establishing a reputation as a strong producer of quality shows. Its latest offering is its most ambitious yet, a drama series set before the Civil War in Georgia on a slave plantation. This is the definition of a period drama, and it’s hard to classify WGN America in comparison to other networks. Given their success with “Manhattan,” I think that they’re well-equipped to handle and deliver this show. This first installment introduces the key players, slaves and non-slaves alike, and helps to build the dynamics between them that make things complicated and interesting. Chief among those is the fact that an abolitionist lawyer who has been approached by the Underground Railroad for the use of his house happens to be the brother of the owner of a slave plantation with more than a few slaves eager to find a way to escape their current situation. This episode managed to convey some of the horrific elements of slavery traditionally dramatized in film and television, like the masters reading a newspaper and sipping lemonade while watching a slave being beaten in their front yard. The use of anachronistic music mixed with traditional spirituals and a strong score works well, and this episode ended on a tense, enticing note. In terms of casting, all parts seem well cast, with Jurnee Smollett-Bell standing out among the cast for her role as Rosalee. I was surprised to see Christopher Meloni playing a good guy who helped a slave, but it turns out that he’s worse than all of them, pretending to be good only to then betray the slaves he’s offered to help. Committing to this show seems like a big thing to do given its depth and period nature, but I’m open to starting the second episode to see how involving it proves.

How will it work as a series? That I’m not sure about – I think it’s going to be good however it plays out, but I wouldn’t have thought of it as a regular television series. Telling its story that way may well be effective, and I’m sure there will be plenty of content and opportunity for this show to develop its characters and universe over the course of a number of episodes.
How long will it last? The headline “18-year ratings high” for WGN America seems to guarantee that this show will have a healthy life, and positive reviews should also help with that. It hasn’t been renewed just yet, but I feel like it has to be a lock.

Pilot grade: B+

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