Earnest and somewhat messy, “Underground” serves up so many distractions that you wonder if it will ever settle down and just tell its story.
That story would be about two slaves — Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Noah (Aldis Hodge) — running from a Georgia plantation in 1857 toward freedom and romance. The 10-episode series begins with Noah recruiting a group of fellow slaves to make a break for it.
At the same time, up north a ways, a white abolitionist lawyer, John Hawkes (Mark Blucas) and his wife, Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw), are leaning toward letting their home become a part of the underground railroad system that guides slaves to safe haven.
Fine, although Noah is recruiting so many slaves to run that he may also be able to field a hockey team. But wait — then there’s the slave who also plays dominatrix to the plantation owner (Reed Diamond). Did that go on a lot? And the one-eyed preacher slave (Mykelti Williamson). And the bounty hunter (Christopher Meloni) who retrieves escaped slaves to pay for his wife’s stay in a mental hospital.
That bounty hunter also has a dim-witted son. Wasn’t it enough that he just have a wife in a mental hospital? “Underground” is the sort of show that just feels the need to add on a dim-witted son.
Tonally, things are a bit rocky as well, from the opening sequence, which has Noah on the run through a forest beneath a buzz of synthesized sounds, to a governor’s ball which is introduced with a modern pop song. At one point John Hawkes worries that a panicking escaped slave won’t be able to “keep it together” for very long. Were people actually keeping things together in 1857?
A ways in Blucas is forced to strip to the waist for yet another near-kinky scene. And our humble lawyer is revealed to have the over-inflated, gym-bunny physique of every aspiring Hollywood actor, which is ridiculously out of place in this context. It jars against the period, something “Underground” does time and again.
Look, the essence of “Underground” is both wrenching and eye-opening: The horror of knowing your loved ones could be sold to another owner at any time, the cruelty of the bosses, the physical abuse, the pain of knowing your children could expect no better and possibly worse than you in life. Beyond that, imagine the guilt of running and not just leaving others behind but possibly leaving them to suffer consequences.
“Underground” lingers on the slave experience, and that experience is appropriately awful and inhumane and certainly dramatic. But it’s also a show that wanders a bit too freely, undercutting its important subject matter and forward momentum by interfering with itself. As a show, it needs to learn how to keep it together.
Tom Long is the former film critic for The Detroit News
Premieres at 10 p.m. Wednesday