Historical drama series Underground premiered to a ratings record for WGN last month, and for creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, it feels amazing. “People were afraid of the idea of coming back to slavery week after week,” explains Green, and the resulting numbers can only be viewed as a vindication. “From the beginning, we said it was a thriller,” she added. “It could be exciting, it could be deep, and that’s the TV that I love.”
Underground is the result of a laborious research process on the part of the show’s creators, who went deep into the archives to find the truth surrounding the Underground Railroad, and the lives of those slaves who used it to escape to freedom in the 19th century. Both Pokaski and Green recognized this as a story that hadn’t been properly depicted, on television or in entertainment generally, and that part of the reason for this is that the true stories of the slaves in this time are, for the most part, hidden. Indeed, these aren’t stories you necessarily read about in history books, but are rather buried within libraries and archives.
“We found these Library of Congress narratives of people who were actually there. It was a treasure trove if you knew where to look,” says Pokaski. As the amount of stories expanded, the cast did as well, though the strategy and the mission remained the same. What you want is every character to be complicated, to surprise you when you’re writing and when you’re watching,” says Green, who noted that even the show’s slave owner roles were dimensionalized and given great thought.
Not content with taking the easy way out or settling for the simplest answer, the creators of Underground set out to be bold with not only their visual and story-telling choices, but their choice of music as well. Though the creators took few liberties with the narrative of the Underground Railroad, there is one admitted exception to that. “Kanye (West) was not in 1857,” jokes Green. In their contemporary score, the creators found a new avenue into creating a necessary sense of urgency around the material.
Indeed, to Green and Pokaski, the show could not possibly be more resonant and relevant in today’s world of political and social upheaval — in which racism remains a reality. “We were looking at papers describing why slavery had to exist for the economy, and you could remove certain words and it would be about the minimum wage being raised,” said Pokaski, addressing parallels to current economic issues in America. In a world in need of great reform, Green was inspired by the ability and determination of those slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad, and those helping them along the way to change the course of history. “We talk about ‘how active is your activism?’ – with these people, the odds were against them, but they were moving the needle of history,” she says. “I think we’re telling part of a struggle that’s still going on,” adds Pokaski. “And that’s important.”