Wednesday, March 9, 2016

REVIEW: 'Underground' - Noah Discovers a Map to Freedom and Starts Devising a Plan in 'The Macon 7'

WGN America's Underground - Episode 1.01 "The Macon 7"

In 1857, a group of slaves on a Georgia plantation make the dangerous decision to journey 600 miles north for the promise of freedom.

Underground is covering some very familiar territory. Stories about slavery have been popular throughout the entertainment industry. They are still powerful stories that showcase a really dark and demoralizing period in American history. But there needs to be a unique edge to any new story trying to mine this material yet again. Underground finds that immediately in its opening moments. This is a show that presents this story as a taunt thriller. An escape towards freedom as a way to escape a horrible and depressive life filled with oppression. It's a daunting task as seen multiple times throughout this hour. But it makes the experience so personal to everyone associated with it - from the slaves to the slave owners to the bounty hunters to the Northern abolitionists. It's an angle that works remarkably well and makes for an opening episode that is so gripping and compelling to watch.

The tension is also ramped up significantly because the show uses a modern-day soundtrack. That's a very deliberate choice. Music director John Legend certainly has the knowledge to pick some surprising but very meaningful songs to score some tense moments in this premiere. It's something the show is aware of at all times as well. The music bleeds directly into the tension of the storytelling and the actions of the characters. When Noah is breathing heavily as he evades capture, it's exactly in rhythm with the beats that are scoring these opening moments. It forms a connection instantly to this character and the material. Awareness is so crucial to every single piece of entertainment. The creative team needs to understand how this story is coming across and making sure that it's done with purpose. The soundtrack gives this show a unique edge to it that actually helps the narrative. It's not just a trick in order to stand out in a very crowded marketplace. It fuels the narrative. The struggles the musicians in the songs are singing about are different than the struggles of the characters in the story. But there's also a bond that connects the two stories that puts an emphasis on just how dramatic this period of time actually was - and how meaningful and emotionally resonant it is to this day.

The narrative in this opening episode is a little widespread. There are various corners of this universe that are being explored. They will all build up to something great over time. The audience goes into this premiere with the knowledge that the Underground Railroad existed and helped thousands of slaves escape towards freedom. But this episode immediately makes that a personal journey for all involved. Every single action taken in this premiere has a motivation. Some are more mysterious and secretive than others. And then, there are a few that just feel like the plot moving them into position. But it's still a very thrilling experience to watch as the show digs deep into these characters, the lives they are living and what the hope of freedom actually means for them.

A lot of time is spent on the Macon plantation. That's the place where Noah was fleeing from. He is able to craft a convincing story that keeps him from being punished too severely. But he's still got that hope for freedom look in his eyes. He wasn't successful in his real journey out there doing this run. But he was given a piece of the puzzle that could lead him and his friends to freedom. A dying man gives him the key. Now, he just needs to make sense of it. But that's a lot more difficult than it first seems. First, he has to find someone who can actually read and understand what this message of potential freedom says. And second, he has to make sure that he only tells the people that he knows he can trust to keep this plan a secret. He doesn't know everyone on the plantation. But he knows enough to understand how people will react if he shared his plans with them.

All of this is happening on a big night at the plantation as well. The family that owns it is celebrating their daughter's sixteenth birthday with a party that's largely an excuse for the father to welcome his neighbors and potential voters into his house. He is running for Senator and is proud of the fact that throughout 20 years he has never had a runaway slave. That's bound to change given the plans Noah is concocting in his head. But this is also a time of great change for the rest of the plantation. A woman has just given birth to a beautiful baby boy. It's a happy occasion for the entire community. And yet, this is a dangerous and ruthless world. Right after birth, the mother kills her child so that he can have a better life than this world. It's a very dark twist but one that also unites this community while showing just how bad things really are in this universe. Rosalee ran to this woman's side in order to help her through labor. She is emotionally distraught after seeing what the mother has done to her child. It's a debilitating experience. But she has to keep working. She still has to serve the house and clean up the slaves when they are returned beaten up and broken. It's the only reality she has known. But she is still willing to risk her safety in order to protect the people she cares about. She takes a whipping for her younger brother when he is blamed for something incredibly trivial. It's that kind of bravery and determination that really gets Noah to notice her. They are a partnership that should be fascinating to watch as this season's story develops.

There are also a number of tangential storylines going on throughout this episode as well. A number of them are quite simple and small. They range from the father of the dead boy being angry over what has happened, the preacher and his wife being the only literate slaves on the plantation and Rosalee's brother, Sam, hoping he can one day buy his freedom. The more significant ones are a bit more mysterious and broad through. The much more promising one includes August Pullman, a man who at first seems like he is helping slaves escape to freedom but is actually just gaining their trust so he can collect the bounty on their heads. He's an interesting character - largely because of the way Christopher Meloni is playing him. He pulls the audience in without being too showy. August is a man with personal motivations for his actions. But they are largely cryptic and just teased a little bit. He has a great moment about creating a better future for his son. But he's still a bounty hunter trying to make a living in this world as well. The more problematic subplot comes whenever John and Elizabeth Hawkes are onscreen. They are a couple who are struggling to have a family and have their politics taken seriously. They honestly aren't that interesting and feel very familiar. They will be important to this story. John is the brother of the Macon plantation owner. They have also agreed to listen to a potential plan that would open their home to fleeing slaves. It's just more formulaic than the premiere would probably like. But again this opening hour has a lot to do and does a number of them quite well.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Macon 7" was written by Misha Green & Joe Pokaski and directed by Anthony Hemingway.
  • There are a ton of familiar faces making up this impressive cast. And yet, Aldis Hodge and Jurnee Smollett-Bell are quick standouts in the lead roles. They are remarkable and will probably only get better as the season continues.
  • August has his own slave at home. That's the first indication that he may not be as forthcoming as he initially seems. And yet, he is also much more civil and willing to have a conversation with the man as a colleague than the rest of the Southern slave owners and bounty hunters.
  • John's political opinions are wildly known. And yet, he is still welcomed in his brother's house. Sure, it seems like it has been awhile since they've last seen each other. Their wives aren't cordial at all. But it still seems like John is willing to become a part of this environment despite how opposed he is to all of it.
  • At first, it was unclear if John knew that Elizabeth was no longer pregnant or if she was just keeping up the facade and lying to him. But then it's made perfectly clear that she is not pregnant and can never have children. It's devastating but she quickly finds purpose elsewhere with the cause - despite her previous objections.
  • When Ernestine voiced how afraid she became in this world as soon as she became a mother, it seemed like only a matter of time before one of her children was injured by the hands of their owners. Sure enough, it was Rosalee who paid the price.