‘Underground’ Review: WGN’s Escape-from-Slavery Drama Is Packed with History, Heartbreak and Thrills

John Legend-produced series stars Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge as slaves determined to break free

History tells us that the Underground Railroad helped an estimated 100,000 enslaved African Americans escape to freedom by 1850. But what did it feel like to break the chains of oppression and how did 5 percent of those forced into servitude muster the courage and means to run away?

The thrilling and ambitious new 10-part drama “Underground” attempts to tell us that and more when it debuts tonight, on the basic-cable network WGN America. Executive produced by Oscar-winning singer John Legend and written, created and produced by “Heroes” alums Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, “Underground” takes the history many of us know about the Peculiar Institution and breathes new life into it with daring, inspiring narratives based on real harrowing tales of escape.

Movies such as “12 Years a Slave” taught us how it felt to be born free in America and kidnapped and forced into slavery while the miniseries “Roots” told the story of a man born free in Africa who was kidnapped and forced into slavery in America.

But the protagonists of “Underground,” Noah (Aldis Hodge,”Straight Outta Compton” and “Leverage”) and Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell, “True Blood” and “Friday Night Lights”), are both born into slavery, a rarely-seen perspective. He’s a cunning field slave who has tried and failed in the past to escape; she’s a sheltered house slave who knows there is more to life than the heartless brutality, rape and death that surround her. Their story takes place in 1857, four years before the start of the Civil War.

Brought together through bloody abuse and loss, Rosalee and Noah quickly discover that they’re more alike than it would seem – they know the lay of the land, who can help them, and how to deceive their master. Delivering the strongest and most endearing performances of their careers thus far, Hodge and Smollett-Bell draw you in with raw, heartfelt dialogue, visages and body language that will have viewers and Black Twitter rooting for them at every turn.

Rosalee’s mother, Ernestine (scene stealer Amirah Vann) exudes a strength and wisdom rarely explored in slave narratives. Ernestine is the head house slave who knows all too well how to wield her power and protect her children. Her relationship with Master Tom Macon (Reed Diamond) and his wife, Suzanna, (Andrea Frankle) is as uncomfortable as it is fascinating, and will undoubtedly draw comparisons to modern dramas such as “Scandal.”

Alano Miller’s (“Jane the Virgin”) character Cato, an enslaved biracial overseer and professional snitch, is equally duplicitous and intriguing because it is unclear what his motives are. Does he want to run away, too, and why does he seem to hate Noah and the field slaves so much when he’s more like them than his master?

In fact if there is one glaring shortcoming on “Underground” — aside from some jarring musical choices — it is that most of the white characters don’t seem as complicated and textured as their black counterparts. The one exception is Christopher Meloni (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”), who stars as August Pullman, a poor white farmer who may or may not have abolitionist leanings.

When it comes to slavery, most white Americans want to believe that their ancestors were anti-slavery and most black Americans want to believe that their ancestors ran away. But the cold reality is, a large majority of non-slave owning whites were indifferent, while most enslaved black Americans opted for survival and chose not to run because it could cost them their lives and their families.

“Underground” celebrates the small, exceptional group of black and white heroes who risked it all for the sake of freedom. And it’s that story, the amazing cast and the historically accurate writing behind the drama that make this series worth the investment.

“Underground” premieres tonight at 10 p.m. ET on WGN America.