By Emily Ashby,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Gripping slave drama is great viewing for mature viewers.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this TV show.
Though it's set against the backdrop of some of America's worst history and doesn't shy away from the painful realities of slavery, the story focuses on the strength of the human spirit. Courage and perseverance are major themes. There's sabotage and danger everywhere, but you'll also see people sacrifice everything for their freedom and, in the case of the white sympathizers, for the freedom of others. Prejudice and the treatment of plantation slaves is awful and hard to watch, but it's reflective of the time.
Positive Role Models
A mixed bag, as the era indicates. Not only are slave owners and other whites authoritative and merciless toward black people, they're also condescending and dismissive, treating them as less than human. On the other hand, sympathizers put their own lives in danger to help runaways make it to freedom, and those who take the risks to flee do so not only for themselves but for their future generations.
Violence & Scariness
This intense series does the plight of slaves justice in its presentation of the harsh realities of their lives and quests for freedom, but it makes for many disturbing scenes of brutality. Men and women are whipped, and runaways are shot. There are stabbings, painful death scenes, and the slaves' constant fear for their lives and the safety of their loved ones. They're put in impossible situations that make them do stunning things, such as taking physical punishment for someone else and, in one case, drowning an infant to save him from growing up in slavery. Lots of blood, including a birth scene.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
A couple kisses and begins to undress in bed, talking about best positions for getting pregnant. Allusions to rape between white slave owners and black women.
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Many instances of the "N" word from both white and black characters.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Adults are shown drinking alcohol.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Underground is an intense drama about slaves hoping to find freedom. It has many scenes of brutality, including whippings, stabbings, shootings, and deaths. The show is rated for mature audiences for good reason, as it captures the desperation of slave life and features some of the worst of human behavior. On the other hand, it applauds the triumph of the human spirit over despair and shows the courage of those who endured the perilous journey to freedom and those who helped them. Expect to hear many instances of the "N" word, as well as some other strong language and the harsh abuse and degradation of slaves. Other mature themes such as infanticide, rape, and betrayal exist as well. This is not an easy show to watch, but it's gripping, well-produced, and ably acted.
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What's the Story?
UNDERGROUND is a drama series that follows a group of slaves on their courageous journey away from a Georgia plantation and toward freedom. At the center is Noah, a determined leader who yearns to be free from slave master Tom Macon (Reed Diamond) and is willing to sacrifice anything for it. A chance encounter with a dying runaway gifts him with a map to the north via the Underground Railroad, so he gathers a band of men and women including Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Cato (Alano Miller), Sam (Johnny Ray Gill), Moses (Mykelti Williamson), and Zeke (Theodus Crane). The story also follows the efforts of white abolitionists -- among them John Hawkes (Marc Blucas) and his wife, Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw) -- to facilitate freedom for those who defy the yoke of slavery.
Is It Any Good?
This gripping drama series does well by not shying away from the realities of the time. There's the daily life-and-death plight of the slaves, the stomach-turning callousness of the master and his wife toward their human chattel, and the self-sacrifice on the part of the white sympathizers who put themselves in the crosshairs to help the cause of freedom. Every character represents not only a personal cause but also the cause of an entire group of people from America circa 1860s, reflecting the complexities of human interaction and the implications of certain behavior at that time. In that regard, Cato and Rosalee stand out for their precarious positions between the races because of their loftier stations as overseer and house slave, respectively.
As true as it attempts to stay to the drama of the time, though, Underground's use of modern cinematography and music (courtesy of Kanye West, among others, and influenced by producer John Legend) sometimes interrupts the historical flow. Even so, this impressive drama delivers some good performances, including that of Christopher Meloni as the somewhat perplexing opportunist August Pullman; it's a story that makes you want to come back for more.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the violent and abusive treatment of slaves as shown in Underground. From what you know about the conditions of the time, is it fairly accurate? Where should the line be drawn for graphic content like this?
Does anyone show this kind of courage and perseverance nowadays? What would drive you to overcome challenges the way these characters -- and their real-life counterparts -- did?
Is racism still a concern? Given that America's history includes slavery and the relatively recent civil rights movement, can we ever expect full equality not only in the courts but in people's actions? What does racial equality entail exactly?
Were you offended by the prevalence of the "N" word in this production? How, if at all, has its connotation changed between the show's era and now? Are there any appropriate uses of it (or of similarly offensive terms) today?
- Premiere date: March 9, 2016
- Cast: Marc Blucas, Aldis Hodge, Jurnee Smollett-Bell
- Network: WGN
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History
- Character Strengths: Courage, Perseverance
- TV rating: TV-MA
- Last updated: February 26, 2022
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