Hillary Atkin

WGN America Goes ‘Underground’ to Examine a Troubled Period in U.S. History

May 11, 2016

With the pulse-pounding pace of its very first episode, WGN America’s “Underground” transported viewers to the antebellum world of 1857 Georgia, a dangerous and desperate place where slaves on plantations plotted their escapes via the Underground Railroad from their existences of degrading captivity.

The 10-episode drama, which completes its first season tonight, May 11, has drawn the highest ratings ever for an original scripted series on the network — about 3 million viewers on Wednesday nights in Live +7 — and has already been renewed for a second season with 10 more episodes to be scheduled sometime in 2017.

Quickening the tempo of each hour-long episode is the inclusion of contemporary music from the likes of Kanye West, X Ambassadors and The Weeknd that helps tell the stories of the courageous people who banded together to break their shackles and seek a better future of freedom and opportunity.

Creators and executive producers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, veterans of shows including “Sons of Anarchy,” “Heroes” and “Daredevil,” called upon John Legend for his musical expertise in bringing the period to life through song. (Legend, who’s an executive producer, also has his own music featured on the show.)

“We talked about the music from Day One,” Pokaski said in a phone call, along with Green, from their production office. “Our very first draft had ‘Black Skinhead’ by Kanye. It had the urgency and escape we wanted to associate with the show. From there, we just started putting different songs in.”

Green said the Underground Railroad was a subject ripe for re-exploration — but that their script was a hard sell to networks until WGN gave it the green light.

Gleaned from their research, which included recordings from the Library of Congress and stories that are included in an 1872 book by black abolitionist leader William Still, who documented tales of former slaves who escaped bondage, were many surprising elements the creators incorporated into their drama.

“The ingenuity that people were using, such as dressing up as whites and riding in caskets, really surprised us,” Green said. “We felt like it was like a thriller — so exciting, and so many stories. What’s also interesting is the numbers aren’t accurate because they had to be kept secret, so there are no real numbers of people who escaped through the Underground Railroad.”

Akiva Goldsman, Tory Tunnell, Joby Harold, Mike Jackson, Ty Stiklorius and Anthony Hemingway also executive produce, and Hemingway directed the first four episodes.

The theme of oppressed people banding together and rising up against their persecutors 160 years ago has clearly resonated.

“’Underground’ has brilliantly found an entry point into a period and narrative that has connected with a contemporary audience which is entertaining and compelling. I have heard from a wide range of people that find themselves riveted to the screen week to week,” Hemingway said via email. “The fans and community’s support and feedback has been everything we could have hoped for and more. ‘Underground’ has created many great conversations and observations. This continues to prove that important narratives have a voice and audience.”

Underscoring that importance, before the series premiered in March “Underground” was screened for dozens of influential audiences, including at the Sundance Film Festival, New York Comic Con, the National Association of Black Journalists conference and at a number of museums and historically black colleges and universities.

During this year’s Black History Month, the creators and key cast including Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge, Christopher Meloni, Alano Miller, Jessica de Gouw and Amirah Vann were also on hand as it unspooled at the White House for the Office of Public Engagement’s event “These Hallowed Grounds.”

In addition to a panel discussion, which was live-streamed on whitehouse.gov, and the screening, the event highlighted landmarks and monuments across the U.S. that are significant to the African American community, including stops on the Underground Railroad.

In a homecoming of sorts, May 10, 2016, was declared “Underground” Day in the city of Memphis by Mayor Jim Strickland. Memphis was the first stop last October in the awareness campaign with an event at the National Civil Rights Museum, where another screening and panel were also held Tuesday. Earlier in the day, some of the cast and creative team visited Memphis schools and institutions to thank them for their support of the show in a city that is the highest-rated market for it, according to WGN.

In the panel discussions, tough topics like how “house” slaves and “field” slaves were sometimes pitted against each other are often discussed, as are the emotional connections felt by the cast portraying people of their ancestry in wrenching and violent scenes of whipping, beating and rape.

The cast of “Underground,” produced by Sony Pictures Television and Tribune Studios, also includes Marc Blucas, Adina Porter, Mykelti Williamson, Johnny Ray Gill, Chris Chalk, Reed Diamond, Theodus Crane, Renwick Scott and guest star Jussie Smollett.

Green and Pokaski are hard at work on the upcoming season, revealing little about it except that the world of the series will be expanded to include more of the inner workings of the Underground Railroad, and more characters — while keeping the stories “really personal.”

“It is an honor to have ‘Underground’ on our air,” said Matt Cherniss, president and GM, WGN America and Tribune Studios, in the pickup announcement last month. “We look forward to how the story will unfold in what is sure to be a stellar sophomore season.”

(The Season 1 finale of “Underground” airs May 11 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on WGN America.)

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