WGN going ‘Underground’ with new series

The cast of “Underground” includes, from left, Renwick Scott, Theodus Crane, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge, Alano Miller, Johnny Ray Gill and Mykelti Williamson.
The cast of “Underground” includes, from left, Renwick Scott, Theodus Crane, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge, Alano Miller, Johnny Ray Gill and Mykelti Williamson. WGN America

WGN America has looked at specific times in American history for such series as “Salem” and “Manhattan.” The cable channel’s latest offering, “Underground,” turns to the Civil War period.

It follows a group of slaves who escape from a Georgia plantation to cross 600 miles to freedom by using the Underground Railroad. The cast includes Aldis Hodge, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Marc Blucas, Alano Miller, Mykelti Williamson and Christopher Meloni.

Here are a few things you need to know before watching “Underground”:

The title song is “Heaven’s Door,” produced by John Legend

John Legend: “That is an original song that we wrote for this show. The singer is Alice Smith, who was a wonderful singer I’ve known for quite a long time. I wrote the song with Angelique Cinelu and Curtis Richardson, and it is an original song, based specifically on some plot points in the show.”

Years of research was done to create the show

Series co-creator Joe Pokaski: “We did a lot of reading, a lot of research. This has been three years in the making, so we’ve read a lot of first-person slave narratives, done as much research as possible, put every assistant on it. We tried to stay as true as possible to everything we found, and truth was stranger than fiction, a lot of times.”

One purpose for the show is to be a reminder of America’s history with slavery

Series co-creator Misha Green: “One of the things we talked about from the beginning when we conceived the show is that this isn’t about the occupation. It was about the revolution, and I think the story of the Underground Railroad is just so exciting and thrilling and hasn’t been told. It was the first integrated civil rights movement in America, and I think that that’s the important thing to really highlight again today.”

The actors connected to their roles as soon as they arrived on set

Aldis Hodge: “There is no research like actually being in the moment and living it. We got down to set, which was an actual preserved slave plantation. When you look out into a world and it’s into nothingness, the first thing you think of is defeat. You think of all the things that can kill you. So the fact that these people found the actual power within themselves, the potential to actually do it, that surprised me the most.”

Cast members were awed by what the slaves could do

Jurnee Smollett-Bell: “It really was just so mind-blowing how brilliant they were, the ingenuity that they had. They could use the stars, the way the moss hung on the tree, the footprints in the mud or markings on trees. They could use songs. These are men and women who were denied privileges to read and write, and yet they were brilliant.”

The ingenuity the slaves showed is a major part of the scripts

Green: “Just because you weren’t allowed to read and write doesn’t mean you weren’t smart. It doesn’t mean you didn’t have the ingenuity to say, ‘I’m going to go 600 miles north.’ It’s like the beautiful song that they wrote. They found other ways to do it. And I think that that was the most interesting thing to me about these characters is if we are not given the tools, we will still find a way. And I think that that’s something that’s very present today, too, and interesting and exciting.”

“Underground” is about courage and hope

Legend: “I think what makes this powerful television is that the extent of the adversity that these people faced, and had the courage to find a way to overcome, is so, so dramatic and stark and moving, that it makes for riveting television.”

Rick Bentley: 559-441-6355, @RickBentley1


10 p.m. Wednesday, March 9