‘Underground’: WGN America’s new historical drama shines light on slave escape route

After winning an Emmy last year for the WWII-themed “Manhattan,” WGN America returns on March 9 with another historical drama, “Underground.” Set in the pre-Civil War era, this 10-episode series tells the remarkable story of a group of slaves who banded together with abolitionists to make the 600-mile trek north to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

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“Underground” is the first series created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski who have made their marks as writers and producers. Pokaski shared in both a WGA bid and BAFTA win for “Heroes.” After a two-season stint as a producer of “CSI” he was co-executive producer of “Daredevil.” Green penned several scripts of “Heroes” before moving on to a staff writing gig on “Sons of Anarchy.” She then worked as a story editor on both the “Spartacus” mini-series and subsequent series.

“Underground” is a bold, pulsating historical drama, heavily researched yet strikingly original, with a hip-hop soundtrack from executive producer John Legend. The large ensemble cast is led by Aldris Hodge (“Straight Outta Compton”) as Noah, who finds a song with lyrics that provide a map to freedom. He is joined by Jurnee Smollett-Bell (“True Blood”) as Rosalee, a sheltered house slave; Amirah Vann (“Girls”), as Ernestine, the head house slave; and Mykelti Williamson (“Justified”) as Moses, the plantation preacher.

Among those seeking to stop them are Alano Miller (“Jane the Virgin”) as Cato, a conniving slave driver and Reed Diamond (“Homicide: Life on the Street”) as Tom Macon, a politically ambitious plantation owner. Possible support could come from Marc Blucas (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) as Macon’s brother John Hawkes, an abolitionist lawyer and Jessica de Gouw (“Arrow”) as Elizabeth, Hawke’s supportive yet wary wife. And then there is Christopher Meloni (“Law & Order: SVU”) as railroad magnate August Pullman, whose true motives remain to be seen. 

It’s been a busy year for Anthony Hemingway (“Treme”), who directed the first four episodes and serves as one of the executive producers. He also helmed two episodes of FX’s miniseries “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson.” His impressive handling of the expansive pilot episode of “Underground” could land him his first Emmy nomination.

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With its meticulous attention to period detail, the show should snag several nominations at the Creative Arts Emmys. Production designer Meghan C. Rogers previously contended for her work on “Temple Grandin” (2010), while makeup department head Debi Young was nominated last year for “Bessie.” Cinematographer Kevin McKnight (“Shameless”) and costume designer Karyn Wagner (“The Green Mile” [1999], “Cake” [2014]) are new to the awards circuit.

Casting director Eric Dawson (Emmy winner for “Glee,” six-time nominee for “Nip/Tuck” and “American Horror Story”), could find himself back in the mix for assembling that ensemble with the help of another Emmy champ, Robert J. Ulrich (“Glee,” nominated alongside Dawson six times as well) as well as past contender Carol Kritzer (“Nip/Tuck”).

Key crtics have embraced the show. Daniel Feinberg (The Hollywood Reporter) found it to be “both exhilarating and entertaining, taking a history lesson and making it something more contemporary, taking a painful chapter in American life and infusing it with populist genres.” And Dominic Patten (Deadline) calls it “a harrowing and compelling series that will make you feel uncomfortable, amazed, and ultimately inspired by one of the most treacherous and ambitious chapters in this nation’s history.”

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