Underground: Season 1, "The Macon 7"

Dear Television,DEARTVLOGO

SARAH: Underground is a show I’ve been excited about not only because it’s tackling such an important subject — slavery, and the escape from it — but because of its creator’s approach to that subject. Consider, for example, Underground’s press release:

Set in a desperate and dangerous time, WGN America’s Underground tells the story of revolutionaries of the Underground Railroad who use their ingenuity, power and perseverance to attempt the greatest escape in history despite the dire consequences that awaited them on the other side. The provocative and compelling series focuses on a group of courageous men and women who band together for the fight of their lives — for their families, their future and their freedom.

What’s amazing here is that these are two long sentences that don’t seem to need the word most readers would expect in a show about the underground railroad: the word “slaves.” Instead, we find “courageous men and women” who are “revolutionaries” — people who are engaged in a quest for freedom, and whose efforts have nation-making, community-building power. Phil: I’m not 100% in love with how Underground is executed but it’s really worth pausing to consider how radical its ambition is: to tell a story, on a mainstream stage, about people who are slaves but who are not defined by slavery.

Also: Jurnee Smollett-Bell is in this show! I have loved her since Friday Night Lights!

underground lead
PHIL: Sarah, don’t distract me by bringing up the glorious triumph of late-era Friday Night Lights, please. We’ll get back to Jurnee Smollett-Bell and her, so far, terrific performance in this series, but you bring up a really interesting point that I think undergirds a lot of Underground’s aesthetic, narrative, and historical decisions. Using many of the same tactics as WGN’s other series — Salem, specifically — as well as recent competitor series like CW’s Reign, this historical drama is structured, to some extent, to invite contemporary identification through anachronism. This is obviously a much more fraught project for a show about American slavery than a show about the Salem witch trials, but it’s one we encounter almost immediately as the opening sequence — and much of the episode after it — is cut to Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.” From here, though, I think it’s more of a mixed bag. I get the Kanye drop, and I think it’s actually a pretty powerful way to begin given the way the song’s lyrics and video are so heavily invested in puncturing the idea of post-racial society.

But the rest of the soundtrack feels much less intentional. One anachronistic cue would have a big, singular impact, like the Common and John Legend number that ends Selma. A carefully curated set of anachronistic cues — I’m thinking of Sofia Coppola’s post-punk Marie Antoinette — could establish a coherent aesthetic perspective. But, more often than not, the soundtrack for Underground sounds like a hiphop/metal Spotify channel. I love anachronism in film and TV, but, after “Black Skinhead,” I think the cues begin to slide worryingly close to an attempt to make a show about slavery seem “cool.”

This is all a bit of a tangent, but, back to your point, the soundtrack — in line with the seventies-style camera zooms in one sequence — further contextualize the producers’ decision not to use the word “slave” in the promo copy. So, on one hand, this is about reframing the rhetoric surrounding slavery and (radical) subjectivity. But, on the other hand, it could also be about de-historicizing the experience of racial violence, institutional racism, radical action. Best case scenario, the show is using pointed aesthetic and rhetorical choices to emphasize or suppose a trans-historical vision of race in America; worst case scenario, it’s using a trendy, somewhat paint-by-numbers set of aesthetic choices to blur the edges of really important historical differences. To be fair, I think it could really be doing both or either, though it’s too soon to tell.

SARAH: I loved that Kanye opener, dude. For me the soundtracked worked, inasmuch as I think it was a way to instill enslaved characters with the kind of radical creative energy and anger associated with hip hop.

But yes, to your broader point: I think that tension also plays out in form. Underground might have a new approach, but it’s fundamentally a genre story, and it draws very freely on the tropes of its genres: the plantation narrative, the slave narrative; the escape movie. Right off the bat, we get a medley of familiar tropes. The show opens as an enslaved man runs through the night, chased by dogs; it then shifts to a familiar white-pillared plantation house where the camera settles on a beautiful light-skinned house maid, who is immediately called — with her mother — to attend to the birth of a baby. There’s a mean plantation mistress; a well-meaning white senator; a soulful black minister; and a scared-of-change maternal figure. The opening episode, with its violence, infanticide, and moments of strange transformative intimacy, is a mix of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gone with the Wind, possibly North and South, and, to mix it up a bit, Beloved. In fact there are very few plot points in the first three episodes that are unsurprising.

Underground, Season 1, Episode 101
At least one critic has chided the show for slipping into a “soap opera” mode. I usually find that to be an annoying criticism that just means the show is plot-driven and fun to watch — but here I think it’s worth pausing over. But rather than annoyingly implying that soap operas are necessarily bad, let’s frame it this way: what happens to the conventions of melodrama when they’re mobilized in the service of black revolutionary experience? Can those two modes fit together, without the conservative forces of genre bogging the radicalism down? Being smart about genre is always hard, but it’s especially hard when the conventions at hand are so intertwined with the history of American racism.

PHIL: The history of race and melodrama in popular media is such a long, varied, and well-documented one that the “soap opera” criticism seems particularly off-base. (Also, how much longer are people still going to use “soap” as a dirty word? Name a prestige series since 1999 that isn’t based on the serial structure of the soap opera. And, having watched two episodes now, I don’t see anything that makes Underground significantly more “soapy” than, say, HBO’s Vinyl. Not to mention that, whatever its flaws, Underground is also a significantly better show.) In any case, you’re right that the genre is something of an impediment here, inasmuch as these are familiar 19th-century beats.

They’re also, for what it’s worth, familiar 21st-century beats. As a number of people have noted, slavery is all of a sudden an approachable subject for popular film and media. Kara Brown recently penned a widely-circulated essay entitled, “I’m So Damn Tired of Slave Movies” in response to the Sundance buzz surrounding Nate Parker’s forthcoming The Birth of a Nation. Her best point, I think, is less that there are too many films about slavery — in the history of American film, slavery is surprisingly something of an under-explored subject compared to, say, WWII, for instance — than that the recent visibility of slave films is symptomatic of Hollywood’s limited ability to imagine black experience that isn’t otherwise defined by whites. The films she’s talking about, though, are also themselves pretty well-defined by their own relationship to genre. 12 Years a Slave is notable for the kind of poetic realism it deploys to tell its story, but even as committed as it is to undercutting traditional emotional beats, it’s hard for the film to stay away from the kind of melodramatic swells that have been associated with stories like this since Stowe. Django Unchained, meanwhile, went hard in the other direction only to structure the film around a whole other eccentric set of genre signifiers from Western to blaxploitation. (It would be naive to say that Underground isn’t visibly indebted to, even enabled by, both of these portrayals.) All of which is to say that I’ll be interested to see whether this series continues down the path of escalating melodramatic excess — a la House of Cards or Scandal or whether these generic markers are a starting place from which a different style and pace of show might emerge.

SARAH: And as if trying to navigate the storytelling clichés of slavery wasn’t enough, Underground also carries the weight of trying to represent a difficult history. Since at least Phyllis Wheatley, art that engages with the African American experience has been caught in a double-bind between accuracy and creativity: too mimetic and it’s not really art, too creative and it can’t be trusted. And now, because slavery so rarely appears on television, Underground has the problem of being not just a representation of slavery, but instead the representation of slavery. Every representational choice they make is a thousand choices left unrepresented. I mean: it’s a lot! Half-way through the first episode, I caught myself inhabiting this very unhelpful critical “gotcha!” mode, where I was just looking for decisions to be offended or bothered by, and keeping tabs on any historical detail that felt inaccurate or overstated. Which is no way to watch television, like you’re the fact police. I mean, Underground is a drama, not a history book.

But I do want to focus on one basic fact of the show: the plantation the slaves escape from is near Macon, Georgia. I have so many questions about this! How did they choose Georgia? Why?

underground HOUSE
Because Phil — and excuse me while I get a bit in the weeds here — Georgia has a really interesting history with slavery! The British Parliament banned slavery there in 1735, before legalizing it again in 1750. But the cotton farming for which Georgia’s most known today only really became worth doing on the large scale — which is to say, people only really started getting rich on it — after the spread of the cotton gin, which wasn’t even invented until 1793. So while by 1857, the year that Underground takes place, there were certainly a lot of wealthy plantation farmers in Georgia, it was definitely not the kind of old-school slavery wealth you would have found in Virginia at the time (or in Louisiana, where the series is filmed — on a sugar plantation, not a cotton one). The Macon plantation house signals old money to contemporary viewers — but that’s not what it would have meant in 1857, I don’t think. What’s more, the increasing demand for cotton meant a dramatic increase in demand for slaves; plantation slaves in the early part of the 19th century faced an intensified social rupture, as more and more slaves from the coast were sold or moved to inland plantations. Also, Georgia had quite strict manumission laws: after 1801, slaveholders had to get permission from the state legislature to free their slaves — and this matters a lot to some important early African American novels, like Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends.

But does all this matter to Underground, Phil? I’m not sure! It’s unclear to me if Underground cares more about Georgia as an actual place where enslaved people lived or as the location of the most famous plantation in American cultural history: Gone with the Wind’s Tara.

Which: that’s fine! It is fine for this show to start with the central American fantasy of slavery rather than with actual slavery: it’s actually really amazing to tell the story of slaves having to escape from Tara, because in some senses that is what African Americans today are faced with: navigating slavery as a cultural memory that has been most regularly represented by slavery’s perpetrators.  

(Here’s the other thing about Macon, Georgia: it is far from the North. So just from a dramatic perspective, you can get a lot more escape-genre television out of a Georgia plantation story than, say, a Kentucky one. I encourage you all to go look at a map right now and imagine actually walking from Georgia to Ohio. But are we back to realism now? It’s confusing.)

PHIL: This is such a great set of points. I like the idea that this show is digging deep enough into the actual historical narrative to choose a somewhat fantastical detour. Despite this valuable trip into antebellum history, though, I think we’re back to genre again. Or, if not genre, the question of cinematic inheritance. Again, I think Kara Brown’s piece is a vital one, but it oversells just how many films about American slavery exist. If you asked a relatively well-informed student of film to name films about slavery in the U.S. off the top of their head, you’d get probably a reasonably complete list. And this is a big thing for Underground. Even as it’s trying to do something new, every viewer will have, not a large varied genre of “slave film” in their minds, but a set of very specific references, from Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind to Roots to Tarantino and McQueen. This is a bit of a burden for a show that’s doing its best to represent a history that’s been relatively under-represented in popular media. The question for this show is how it’s able to tell its own story without being viewed as a compendium of responses to a limited set of iconic representations.

Underground 2015, Season 1, Episode 101
SARAH: Right. And that means the success of Underground depends entirely on its execution of small details. Which — maybe this gets us back to the wonderful Journee Smollett-Bell, as the house slave Rosalee? What was so marvelous about her performance is that, even though the opening episodes require her to move through a series of scenes with an almost completely predetermined emotional content, I never doubted that she was genuinely feeling every emotion: joy at the baby’s birth, horror at its death, terror at the threat to her little brother’s body, dismay and attraction to Noah’s bold embodiment. If these scenes were cliché or familiar to us, they were not familiar to her character; they were new and real. And to the extent that the story depends on her character’s coming-to-consciousness, the emotional center of the story felt new and real too.

Some other moments: less so? The narrative counterparts to Rosalee, who is gathering her will to escape (after the death of a baby), are John and Elizabeth Hawkes, who are gathering their will to help “the struggle” (partly because they can’t have a baby). Their scenes were much less persuasive to me. I wasn’t sure what the show was trying to do with their infertility narrative; I didn’t find their dialogue interesting; their performances didn’t seem to represent any real internal or moral struggle. Maybe the actors aren’t really willing to imagine themselves into the kind of racism the roles required?

I’ll also say here that I found the slaveholding characters, the Macons — the particularly mean plantation mistress Susanna — not terribly well done. There’s a lot to say about the history of this character-type, and of the family dynamic this story-line is parsing: as the first episode makes clear, and as further episodes make manifest, Underground is driving right at the history of emotional and sexual entanglement across the lines of slavery (everyone who wants to think about the difficulties of representing that history should really stick around to weigh in on next week’s episode). Suffice to say here: neither the acting or the dialogue of the Macons, the slaveholding family, is great. But then: do we really care? Probably just fine to have these characters get out of the way of Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge.

Underground, Season 1, Episode 103
PHIL: Yeah, one of the most striking things about this show is how excellent and deep the cast is. So far, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge are absolutely magnetic leads, and when Mykelti Williamson — who has been doing great, under-recognized character work for a while now — and Adina Porter are, at best, support to these two, then you know you’ve put together a serious ensemble.

All of which really puts into relief just how awful the white leads are. I know acting is hard, but Reed Diamond, who plays the cruel master of the Georgia plantation, is struggling so mightily with natural-sounding line readings I wonder if he’s memorizing them phonetically. The same is true of the aforementioned white abolitionist couple on the verge of setting up an outpost of the Underground Railroad in the North. This isn’t experimental cinema, so I sincerely doubt that these actors were cast intentionally to be markedly worse than the actors of color on this show. That said, it leans into something that the show is indeed trying to do intentionally, which is to make the locus of the show’s heroism the slaves in the South and the free men and women of color in the North who are setting up the railroad. It remains to be seen how much the white allies we’ve met will play into the action, but, if the casting budget is any indication, they’re going to stay on the sidelines. (This, of course, could change.)

SARAH: One of the truly surprising plot points was the decision to include Cato, the slave driver, in the escape plans. I’m sure Underground isn’t the only narrative featuring the attempt to suture this particular slavery-created rift, but honestly I can’t think of another story so invested in the difficulty of learning to trust around white-created barriers in the slave community. And Cato’s interesting too, because he’s not only a driver but also a bit of a dandy; the camera pays a lot of attention to his hat and his vest (which in a later episode we see him actually iron, like he was Adolph in Uncle Tom’s Cabin). The pilot ends with a display of Cato’s savvy and power, and I think it’s so remarkable that the show wants to emphasize to both viewers and characters that he is a real, fully-fleshed character (rather than the flattened villains the overseer and plantation mistress are).

Underground, Season 1, Episode 102
We get a sense of his humanity through his scars. Many characters in the show have unexplained marks on their body — Cato’s face is mottled as if burned, and Moses the minister has a stitched-shut eye; Noah’s back is scarred and tattooed. I so appreciated the show’s attention to its characters’ suffering not only as spectacle — though certainly, as when Rosalie is whipped, it’s willing to visually depict her pain, the blood on her hands, and to use both as narrative spurs — but as long, lived history. And although I’m sure at some point in the series we’ll get a history of these scars, in the first three episodes, at least, they’re not even mentioned: everyone has suffered, but everyone also has motives beyond their suffering. And in stories about slavery, that is unusual, and great.

Another detail that works similarly: the horrible belled slave collar that Noah wears after he has been caught by the slave catchers. The camera makes evident the degradation of it, but Noah just gets on with it: he suffers, yes, but he chooses to focus on his strength.

PHIL: I think my main criticism so far has been the way that a few choices — the stylized camera, the soundtrack, some replacement-level acting talent around the margins — can make the show feel occasionally broad-brush. And I think, proportionally, I’m overstating this criticism. Indeed, I think I’m only noticing these things because most of what we’ve seen has been extraordinarily detailed and rich. The scars are a great example of this. So, to some extent, is the production design. All of the different spaces on this show — the parlor of the main house, the cabins, the slave-catcher’s house, the offices of Chris Chalk’s Northern abolitionist — feel inhabited rather than iconic. This isn’t Song of the South. So what did we like Best and Worst on this show?

SARAH: I have a gory one! My favorite detail was when Noah uses the blood from his leg injury to print a copy of the song lyrics that are the path to freedom. This was a brilliant example of how the show evokes the conventions of the slave narrative but in an innovative and meaningful way; here Noah joins a long history of people and characters (Frederick Douglass is the obvious one) who have, by force of will, turned the conditions of slavery into a tool of publicity, into a technology for bringing slavery down.

PHIL: I really liked this show a lot. The pacing is fast and propulsive without sacrificing the patience that some of the more harrowing scenes require, and I ultimately like the soundtrack even if I think it’s a bit overdone. If I had to choose, I’d say the Best was Aldis Hodge’s performance as Noah. He’s bringing a lot of dynamism to a role that could easily be written or interpreted by an actor as overly stoic or even symbolic.  

SARAH: Worst: I remain unclear about what’s going to happen with the “madwoman in the attic” plotlines: August’s wife in the institution, Elizabeth with her sledgehammer. But I am totally willing to not give a shit about any of that if Smollett-Bell/Rosalee continues to get top narrative billing.

PHIL: In terms of things I don’t give a shit about, Christopher Meloni’s character is up there. The pilot played a nifty narrative trick with the reveal of his character’s true intentions, but if I wasn’t interested in the origins of the saintly Southerner before, I’m especially not interested in single-dad bounty hunter now. (Though it’s always a treat to see Lester Freamon!) I like Christopher Meloni fine, and I get that the show needs a heavy outside the plantation itself, but, as much as I appreciate depth of characterization, this show has spent an awful lot of time in its first few episodes telling us that the chief slave-catcher for the series is a really Complicated Dude.

SARAH: Phil, I just want to second that. Complicated (White) Dude: please take your petty problems away from here! If this show ends up putting too much focus on the bounty hunter dad’s reformation, I’m gonna be super pissed.

Can I end by saying: I really hope people watch this show? It is not perfect. But it’s really gripping TV, and it is going for it. I am really hoping that people start having the conversations this show is so usefully urging us to have.

Please watch this one,

Sarah and Phil