What Does Underground’s Success Mean?

14 months ago, I wondered what the failure of Amazon’s Civil War drama series, Point of Honor, meant for the Civil War in popular culture. I worried audiences didn’t reject the show because it was objectively terrible but because they just weren’t interested in the Civil War. I saw promising signs in Hollywood—with Free State of Jones being adapted for the screen (coming this June!)—but it looked like the Civil War Era and my television weren’t going to be friends anytime soon. It wasn’t long before I heard about Mercy Street and things started looking up. Then came news the History [Channel] was remaking Roots. The jury’s still out on Roots, but Mercy Street was a solid, if slightly disappointing, stab at serialized Civil War fiction. Throughout, Underground was completely off my radar. WGN’s bold slave resistance drama seemed to come out of nowhere and turned out to be one of the best (maybe the best) depictions of the Civil War Era on TV. What Underground achieved  demonstrates how rethinking what “Civil War popular culture” means can draw new audiences and make for riveting, smart, and original entertainment.

The problem was many of us didn’t think slave narratives could be fruitful sources for television drama. When I imagined a potential Civil War Era series, it was something similar to what we got in Mercy Street—set during the war, exploring the home- and battle-fronts, primarily focused on white people. A show about slavery seemed impossible for many reasons but the two greatest were: A. How do you make a show about the peculiar institution without it being hopelessly and relentlessly dire? B. The story would necessarily focus on black characters and, even in 2016, television producers seem reluctant to create shows with black protagonists unless specifically intended for black audiences. I was obviously wrong on both counts and it’s a real tribute to Underground‘s excellent writing, production, and performances that the tone is not crushingly bleak. What’s more, the show assumes narratives about African Americans resisting and escaping slavery are interesting to anyone, regardless of race or background. This was a solid assumption, proved by the show’s ratings. It’s the most successful series in WGN’s history and, while it remained a little under the radar for most of its run, cultural critics started to take notice during its final weeks, meaning it will likely have a lot of buzz going into Season 2.

Part of Underground‘s success is it gives us stories about the Civil War Era we haven’t seen much on TV, and one of those stories is undoubtedly the black experience before, during, and after emancipation. I’m not sure we’ll get a depiction of the latter anytime soon, but Underground has done a great job with the former. Heck, some of Mercy Street‘s strongest moments were also those involving African Americans. Black history has become a major force in popular culture, with films like 12 Years A Slave and Selma winning critical acclaim and large audiences, and the new Birth of a Nation is right around the corner. TV wasn’t really part of this trend but tapping into it clearly opened the door for engaging and informed televised drama. Now that Underground has pulled this off, we can hopefully expect other networks to follow suit and develop content set in the Civil War Era with more attention to black history, just as studios have done in Hollywood.

Underground‘s success also tells us something about African American history’s current “cultural moment.” A couple of days ago, Justine G. Hill wrote a piece for the American Historical Association’s blog considering why film and television depictions of slavery are suddenly so popular. I think she’s mostly correct in arguing that Americans are grappling with issues involving black history and culture, and entertainment is a safe space to do so. Black Lives Matter, the debate over Confederate iconography, the Obama presidency, and other factors are prominent in the media and therefore reflected in popular culture. I’d add, though, this trend predates all these historical movements, except Obama. Django Unchained and 12 Years A Slave were not responses to Black Lives Matter. The former was a genre exercise Quentin Tarantino had been planning for years and the latter was partly inspired by a desire to fight current global slavery.

People often view popular culture as a mirror of the society that produces it, but I think that oversimplifies culture’s role. The factors that pushed these long overdue depictions of slavery and black resistance into the mainstream have extensive histories of their own. They are not products of Black Lives Matter but came from some of the same impulses. What’s more, they’ve fueled the growing national awareness of the integral role African Americans played in the nation’s history and the ways that contribution have been maligned or neglected. The result is a symbiotic relationship between popular culture and current events—each inspiring and driving the other. Part of what makes Underground so riveting is how it embodies this process. Music and dialogue are especially noteworthy for tying the fictionalized historical events onscreen to today’s debates. Noah makes this explicit in the finale by declaring he’s more American than any of the white people in the room because his hands and those of his fellow slaves built the country. That line might as well be the series’s thesis statement.

So, Underground‘s success is undoubtedly a good thing and I hope its second season continues to produce interesting and resonant stories that find a broad audience. What’s more, I hope its success inspires other television producers to look to Civil War Era history as fertile ground for content. Hollywood already learned this lesson a few years ago. I’m glad to see TV catching up.


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