Some people want to return to the past, where life was seemingly “simple” and “easy.” However, history was not forgiving to people of color, who experienced brutality, abuse, discrimination, and more. And this is what WGN America Network’s American historical drama Underground is portraying.
The TV series was critically acclaimed and was even nominated for several awards, as it was eventually known as one of the best period TV shows of its time. Due to the success of the first season, the show was renewed for a Season 2 that ran for 10 episodes as well.
However, much to the fans’ shock and disappointment, WGN announced in May 2017 that it was canceling the show. In this article, we’ll take a look at the network’s reasoning and whether the show has a chance of being revived.
What Is Underground About?
Underground’s story is set in 1857, where Noah (played by Aldis Hodge) organizes a team of slaves on the Macon plantation to try and make a run for it—600 miles to the North in an attempt to reach freedom. Their chances of success are minimal and the terrain towards the freedom they seek is unforgiving. Not only that, their owner, Tom, will most definitely kill anyone who tries to run away.
Of course, those who do manage to get away from the plantation have more risks they have to worry about, as they leave their families behind to carry the burden of Tom’s anger. The escapees receive help in Ohio from an abolitionist couple, yet there’s still danger at every turn, as a slave catcher is hot on their trail and will do everything in their power to bring them back to the plantation—whether they’re dead or alive.
Underground stars several fantastic artists, including Jussie Smollett, Alano Miller, Renwick Scott, Jessica de Gouw, James Lafferty, Marc Blucas, Theodus Crane, Adina Porter, Reed Diamond, Mykelti Williamson, Chris Chalk, Amirah Vann, and Johnny Ray Gill.
The show’s co-creators, Misha Green from Lovecraft Country and Joe Pokaski from Cloak & Dagger, both executive-produced Underground with other award-winning names, including the Academy Award-winning writer Akiva Goldsman from A Beautiful Mind and I Am Legend, Emmy-nominated director Anthony Hemingway from Power and Red Tails, Joby Harold from King Arthur and Edge of Tomorrow, and Tory Tunnell from Spinning Out and King Arthur.
Not only that, but there’s also EGOT winner John Legend, Emmy winner Ty Stiklorius, Mark Taylor from MadTV, and Emmy & Tony Award winner Mike Jackson. Stiklorius and Legend took care of the show’s musical aspects, such as the score, soundtrack, etc.
As for the show’s second season, Legend steps out of the background and joins the cast as Frederick Douglass, an iconic abolitionist, author, and orator. Sadie Stratton stars as a slave trader named Patty Cannon, while Aisha Hinds reprises her role as Harriet Tubman.
Needless to say, Underground was a big success, so much so that it was named Best TV Show by the African American Film Critics Association. Not only that, but it was nominated as Outstanding New Program by the Television Critics Association and received four NAACP Image Award nominations. The show also won three Cynopsis TV Awards, among many other recognitions.
Meet the Characters
Noah Hampton is one of the slaves at the Macon Plantation, known for his work as a blacksmith. Growing tired of the abuse he constantly faces from the hands of his owner and master, as can be seen from the many marks on his back, he dreams of running away and gaining freedom. As such, he comes up with and organizes an escape plan.
Rosalee is a slave born within the Macon Plantation as she’s the daughter of one of the slaves, Ernestine, and Tom Macon, the master. Noah is her significant other. She has a little brother named James from the same father, while also having a half-brother named Sam.
August Pullman is a significant character in Underground who was initially portrayed as a kindhearted man living on a ranch. During the early parts of the show, August is shown helping a runaway slave by allowing her to hide in his wagon, as she was close to being captured. However, we later find out that he’s actually working as a slave catcher who finds runaway slaves and returns them to their masters in exchange for money.
Cato Powell is a significant character in Underground, as he is one of the Macon 7. He is a black man who has the same authority and power as the white men, so much so that he’s labeled as a “white man in dark skin.” However, he eventually decides to run away from his “home” and encounters a life and death situation where he was left with arrows puncturing his leg.
After recovering. he meets a British-Indian woman who helps him become a better person and she eventually becomes his love interest.
Working as an abolitionist lawyer, John Hawkes is actually the brother of none other than Tom Macon, the master of Macon Plantation. After witnessing the cruelty and injustices of slavery on the Macon Plantation, John decides to join the cause against slavery. Unfortunately, he gets killed by a masked bounty hunter.
Pearly Mae is one of the slaves on the Plantation, who helps lead the Macon 7 to freedom. She’s a literate woman who regularly reads the Bible to her husband Moses, which has led the other slaves to believe that he’s the one who’s capable of reading when in fact, it’s only Pearly Mae.
Why Was It Canceled by WGN?
In 2017, WGN America announced that it had decided not to renew Underground for a Season 3. This announcement came after the network decided to cancel Salem, its longest-running series, and Outsider, its highest-rated series. According to Peter Kern’s statement, the president and CEO of Tribune Media, WGN’s parent company, the network decided to “evolve and broaden” its “portfolio of series.” As such, their funds and resources have been “reallocated to a new strategy” in an effort to boost the network’s relevancy “within the rapidly changing television landscape.”
Even though Underground is a fantastic series and an extremely important one to boot, Kern stated that the show no longer fit the new direction the network was working towards, which is why they chose to let it go instead of renewing it for another season.
Is There a Chance for Revival?
In 2020, Oprah Winfrey’s cable network known as OWN picked up Underground to showcase “revitalized” re-runs of the series. Unfortunately, this still doesn’t mean the series will be renewed because the costs of filming a historical drama series such as this are just too high, even for Winfrey. In fact, each episode would cost around $5 million, so it’s definitely not cheap.
It’s definitely disappointing that a show as important as Underground, which showcases the plight of the abused plantation slaves, got canceled and will never be renewed. All we can hope at this point is that a well-off network or streaming platform will see the show’s potential and pick it up for renewal.