WGN America’s Underground NYCC preview panel. With Salem established, WGN America may be hoping that a New York Comic Con preview will allow it to strike period piece gold a second time. For their sake, I hope the actual series isn’t pre-empted by MTV’s Teen Wolf, the way the preview was; but NYCC crowds can be light-handed, in their sarcastic ridicule, and it was then up to the Underground preview to make the glitch a funny footnote. Underground’s story revolves around the famous Underground Railroad, at the very beginning of the Emancipation movement, primarily at the plantation level.
At first, I couldn’t tell what the show was going for, artistically. While not as grimy as Game of Thrones, the show does score points for cosmetic historical detail (even the visible distinction between house & field slaves – something I hope they address directly); but the occasionally driving hip-hop beats did get a little distracting. GoT didn’t need electric guitar riffs to attract certain demos; and by the end of the preview, I didn’t think Underground needed such a hook, either (even if John Legend is attached to the project). One early artistic touch that did grab my attention, early on, was a running take that followed one character, head-on view, from a front courtyard, through the middle of a mansion, and out to the back court, before pulling away to an overhead shot. Short of crane-arm (and a hell of a zoom lens), or a camera drone, I don’t know how that single take was pulled off. I like that.
Once character roles were established (relative to what was shown to us), characters became the driving force of the plot. The preview was just enough to give most of them something of a memorable twist, while the respective actors made a case for the roles left clearer cut. To that end, co-creators Joe Pokaski & Misha Green (Heroes) joined Amirah Vann (Tracers), Marc Blucas (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Jessica De Gouw (Arrow), Alano Miller (Jane the Virgin), Jurnee Smollett-Bell (True Blood), and Aldis Hodge (TURN: Washington’s Spies), in talking about the show & its characters.
Aldis decribed his character, Noah, as having grown up with stories of runaways making it to freedom, allowing him to grow into his own ambitions. This makes him a long term planner & a born tactician, willing to take one for the team & suck it up for the greater good. Qualities all effectively demonstrated in the preview. This was in keeping with what Aldis considered to be true heroism (as opposed to the heroic efforts of the cast & crew, surviving filming in a rural Georgia Summer setting), and what drew him to both the role & the project. That, and the script.
The entire cast present acknowledged the writing, as the principal selling point; adding personal touches to Aldis’ heroism theme. Marc added the draw of bringing the perspective of Station Masters to light. As John Hawkes, an activist on the losing side of the Dred Scott case, he will be representing well-to-do whites – with everything to lose, and nothing to gain – who aided runaway slaves along the Railroad; heroes in their own right. Jessica agreed with Marc; but was struck by the introduction of her character, John’s unstable wife, Elizabeth (as in Lizzy Borden, if that intro was any indication).
Jurnee took her role – Rosalee, daughter of the slave Head of Household – as a journey from accepting life, as it has been, to learning how to tap into her inner strengths. Inner strengths she only began to truly notice upon meeting Noah (where she caught a glimpse of his tactical mind, and indomitable will, at work)
Amirah had to stretch her regard for heroism a bit, as her character – Ms. Ernestine – being Head of Household made her the face of the House Slave (usually not well liked by the field slaves). Amirah respected the flaws to her character; but Ernestine is a survivor, and has devoted herself to passing those skills to her children, and their children. This directly impacted Rosalee, of course; but by season’s end, her character learns… nothing – as Amirah was shut down with a spoiler warning by Marc & company. She settled on the show being a personal history lesson; citing the ordeal, of slave-maker brainwashing, as framing what these heroes were really up against: a culture they were forced to identify with as their whole (and only) world. Jurnee would later add to this point; but included Ernestine as a perpetuator of the brainwashing process.
Alano’s take on heroism may have been the furthest removed from his character, as he plays “the most loved, gentle” overseer, Cato. He focused on the ordeal of any given slave – born & raised kept and uneducated – setting out through a hostile community, into hostile native territory, and through hostile wilderness – often alone – as certainly requiring heroism. He refused to confirm/ deny any links to historical figure, Cato Perkins (on Misha’s behalf); but he did describe his character as being more complex than just the resident Uncle Tom. His was a situation of survival, not opportunism.
Joe & Misha consider Underground as being populated by composite characters; but wholly inspired by history. One example was a letter, Misha hand found, from a slave girl deliberating the pros & cons of running. The North was not as receptive as some might presently think; so for many slaves there was no guarantee of a better life off the plantation. This fact only added to the courage required to commit to running, in the first place. Given the scale of the Slave Trade, Joe cited ignorance of the whole as a reason to have the series setting confined to just America’s part. Misha added that the show will also get into the resolution of the Trade, a period that told a uniquely American story.
Underground definitely has potential, and the panel was effectively encouraging. With all the talk of responsibly recounting history, and various facets of heroism, however, it was only fitting that a little girl got the last word – thanking the cast & crew for being her hero. Any grizzled cynic could question the authenticity of the moment; but there was no denying the delivery. The kid won the panel.
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