“Underground” tries to navigate a delicate line, exploring slavery – and attempts to escape it – with many of the trappings of a primetime soap, touching upon the lives of slaves, their cruel overseers and some whites sympathetic to the cause. The result is so-so as both history and drama, a series with moments of power, but also occasional lapses into Civil War-era cliches. Progressing along a serialized path, the WGN drama contains enough suspense to pull viewers through four previewed episodes, without yet demonstrating whether it can stay on track through a 10-episode run.
The title references the Underground Railroad, the network that helped Southern slaves flee to the North, set here in the late 1850s, a few years before the Civil War. Most of the action unfolds through the inhabitants of one plantation, with some extended tentacles into key players surrounding them.
That includes the politically ambitious master, Tom Macon (Reed Diamond), as well as the house slaves that serve his family. Among that group is Rosalee (“Friday Night Lights’” Jurnee Smollett-Bell), the daughter of Ernestine (Amirah Vann), who exercises a quiet authority within the house, albeit one that is demonstrated to have its limits.
The field hands, meanwhile, include Noah (Aldis Hodge of “Straight Outta Compton”), who has begun the dangerous process of exploring his escape options, not wanting to leave friends behind, but somewhat unsure about who has the grit to carry out the dangerous plot. With the looks he and Rosalee begin exchanging, it doesn’t take a genius to see that their paths will be linked, although the show takes its time before tipping its hand as to how.
Elsewhere, there’s Macon’s brother, John (Marc Blucas), and his wife (Jessica de Gouw), who oppose slavery, but tread cautiously in terms of whether they want to get involved in the surreptitious battle against it. On the outskirts, meanwhile, looms the taciturn August Pullman (Christopher Meloni), a brooding single father harboring his own secrets.
Created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski (“Heroes”), “Underground” juggles these balls somewhat awkwardly at first, gradually gaining its bearings in the third and fourth hours. Yet while it makes sense to explore both the white owners and the black slaves, the show sometimes spends such an inordinate amount of time with the former that the story is pulled in too many different directions, splitting narrative focus and making the central plot – and characters – slow to develop.
Some of the stylistic choices are also questionable, including a contemporary score – courtesy of executive producer John Legend and his partners – that proves more distracting than stirring. In addition, some of the good actors in the cast – including Meloni, Mykelti Williamson and Adina Porter – feel a trifle underemployed in the early going. (As a footnote, Smollett’s brother, “Empire” co-star Jussie Smollett, has a guest role, which should be promotionally useful.)
WGN appears to be following its own rather vaguely drawn map development-wise, in terms of thematic cohesion among the various dramas that the Tribune-backed service has ordered. On the plus side, with A&E’s “Roots” remake due this spring, the cumulative effect of the two projects will shine a renewed light on this chapter in American history. But in terms of fulfilling those dramatic possibilities, “Underground,” at least, still has a long way to go.