In case you missed it, I’ve been down for WGN’s Underground since my January trip to Sundance.
In case you’re unfamiliar, here’s a look at what the show is about:
Since you’re here, I’ll assume that you’ve been keeping up with the show and would mostly like to know about the perks of the Season 1 DVD set. If, by chance, you have not seen the show, I will stay away from spoilers, but in short, Underground tells the revolutionary stories of the brave individuals on the Underground Railroad who helped plan and execute an unprecedented, terrifyingly dangerous escape. One of the greatest triumphs of Underground is that it – if one is willing to see – really bridges the gap between the past and present and shows how, unfortunately, they are not so different.
Lead by Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton, Leverage) and Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Eve’s Bayou, The Great Debators, True Blood) – who both, arguably, deliver the greatest performances of their careers – the cast of Underground is nothing short of phenomenal. Including Alano Miller (Jane The Virgin), Jessica de Gouw (Arrow, Dracula), Marc Blucas (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Christopher Meloni (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), Adina Porter (The 100), Mykelti Williamson (Justified, 24), Johnny Ray Gill (Rectify), Chris Chalk (Gotham), Reed Diamond (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Theodus Crane (The Walking Dead), Renwick Scott (Treme), the Underground cast successfully paints a picture of a number of important events, rebellions and systemic issues. One of my favorite aspects of the show is, often through the consistently award-worthy Amirah Vann’s (Mozart in the Jungle, And So It Goes) Ernestine, we see the importance and strength of women, the family unit and the smarts that it took to keep it strong.
The show is so good that, even if you’re not a film/TV geek who usually goes straight for the Special Features as soon as the plastic is ripped off of the DVD set, you’ll absolutely want to know more about what went into making the first season a success. Comprised of several very well-edited behind-the-scenes segments, many of the Special Features are lead by or heavily feature commentary from the show’s creators, Misha Green and Joe Pokaski. The Journey Underground is the first of the Features and tells the what, where, when and why of the show. Perhaps the most intriguing part of this segment is seeing that much of it was shot on location, at a very uniquely constructed plantation and how working on that land felt to the cast and crew. In many respects, it is just as much a brief history lesson as it is a type of promo for the show. If you’re at all interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking, this segment also offers some great information on stunts, some unique animal wrangling, and different types of camera equipment that was used throughout the season. (The first full scene of the pilot is mesmerizing – I remember being blown away by the way it is shot and the equipment that is used is briefly discussed. If you are a technical person/film geek, you will probably enjoy this Feature the most). While The Journey Underground segment is a great overview of the show itself, The Characters of Macon featurette offers additional information and insight into many of the characters and how the actors connected with them. The DVD Special Features section also includes a short gag reel, a segment on the music of the show, featuring musicians John Legend and Alice Smith, a camera test and episode commentaries.
If you have already seen all of the episodes, I really recommend rewatching the child-centered episode, “Cradle” with the episode commentary turned on. This is absolutely one of the toughest episodes to watch, but it is undeniably well done and hearing showrunners Green and Pokaski describe the writing and shooting processes is both fascinating and – when one thinks about the fact that this was based on research and was reality – heartbreaking. From the description of how song choices were made to how subtleties were written in and executed, the commentary only enhances how impressive and smart the episode and show is.
Speaking solely from my perspective as a Black American woman, I’ve been a fan of Underground from the beginning not only because it’s an ambitious and brilliantly executed project, but because it takes one of the ugliest aspects of our American history and extracts beauty and heroism in ways that we have rarely, if ever, seen before. While there have been quite a few slave narratives released in the past few years and quite a few people have expressed disdain over this, shows like Underground and films like the upcoming, new school The Birth Of A Nation find new, wonderful perspectives on an institution that we, as Black Americans, thought we knew everything about and that we thought we should be ashamed of. Realizing and watching work that explores the magnitude and horror of American slavery is, to put it lightly, exhausting, but to ignore that history and its still very present effect on many aspects of our society, would be a mistake. To quote the excellent, most recent Roots miniseries, when it comes to the history of the enslavement of Black people in this country, “the shame is not ours.” Tales of our predecessors’ amazing triumphs and strength in spite of their extreme struggles, however, absolutely are ours and should continue to be told with reverence, through Underground and otherwise.
Season 1 of Underground hits DVD and will be available for purchase on Tuesday, June 14, 2016.
– Khylen Steward, CBS Local