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Underground on WGN America is a big step forward for diversity of TV protagonists

It's not a perfect series, but it's telling stories that the rest of TV just isn't.

Aboard a riverboat with the characters from Underground.
WGN America
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for April 10 through April 16 is "Troubled Water," the sixth episode of the first season of WGN America's Underground.

Underground is a show that at once seems like a necessary corrective to much of television and a series whose ambitions exceed its grasp.

I'll watch one scene and be knocked out by its emotional power and insight into life as a slave in pre–Civil War America, only to find the very next scene clumsy and fumbling, or undercut by the series' obviously tiny budget.

In that way, "Troubled Water" might be the series' most representative episode to date, even if it didn't manage to generate the buzz that some of the show's preceding hours pulled off.

There are exquisitely crafted scenes throughout the hour, but the ones that really stand out are the ones set on board a riverboat — because they try so hard to gloss over the fact that Underground doesn't have the money to depict a riverboat voyage.

And that's all before the episode's conclusion, which features the very worst kind of deus ex machina: one that's just barely rooted in character in an attempt to cover up how out-of-nowhere it is.

Still, I keep returning to Underground, week after week, because it has something the rest of television doesn't. To talk about that, we're going to have to pull back a little bit.

How Underground avoids the struggles other shows have

The escaped slaves plot their next move on Underground.
WGN America

In its season three finale, Fox's Sleepy Hollow killed off its female lead, Abbie, played by Nicole Beharie. That series has struggled to find a storytelling foothold ever since the end of its first season, and a significant part of that struggle is rooted in how it abandoned its season one premise — a time-traveling Ichabod Crane solving paranormal cases with a modern police officer (Beharie) — in favor of lengthy dives into turgid backstories and monster hunting.

So when Abbie died, so did the last vestiges of what initially made Sleepy Hollow so compelling, causing the show's fans — and online TV fandom in general — to explode in something between grief and rage. Abbie's death capped a week of women dying on TV, and her character's demise was the most significant.

Now, Beharie reportedly wanted out of the series (which one could also blame on the poor writing her character was saddled with from season two on), but there was still something implicit in Abbie's death: Even though Ichabod and Abbie seemed like co-leads of the series early on, Sleepy Hollow was ultimately Ichabod's story, and everybody else was expendable if his character journey required it.

Removed entirely from questions of representation, there's nothing wrong with that, necessarily. TV writers need to have access to every storytelling tool in their kit, and that sometimes includes character deaths. (Whether they drink from the "death" well too often is an entirely different can of worms.)

But once you account for the fact that Abbie was one of only a few black female leads on TV, the issue becomes much more complicated. Do TV shows have a larger responsibility to serve society in their storytelling, when it comes to underrepresented groups? Should Abbie have been written out of Sleepy Hollow via some other means, so that fans could imagine her off somewhere else, living her life, even if such a scenario would've wreaked havoc on the show's mythology? And how can a TV show handle replacing one character from an underrepresented group with another, without feeling like an accidental commentary on Hollywood's rotten history of strategically staggering token minority characters amid a sea of white folks?

It's that last question that brings me back to Underground. See, the same week Abbie died, Underground didn't just kill one character (in its fifth episode, the one immediately preceding this week's "Troubled Water"). It killed two.

And yet, even as fans felt intense grief over the losses of Zeke and Pearly Mae (both murdered, though in very different circumstances), Underground didn't really get caught up in all the stories of fan anger over character deaths. "Troubled Water" explains why.

Underground has diversity across the board

Aldis Hodge in Underground
Underground's main character is Noah, played by Aldis Hodge. That's one factor that sets it apart.
WGN America

Let's acknowledge upfront that not as many people watch Underground as watch even The Americans, at least most weeks. (Both shows are low-rated, but The Americans usually ekes out the Nielsen edge and has a higher viewership among the TV critic cognoscenti.) So Underground's deaths may have remained under the radar for the simple fact that the people who write about TV didn't see them.

But both of the characters who died were given classic character deaths; they were extreme supporting players whose perishing could facilitate the journeys of the more central characters. And, most importantly, all of the more central characters on Underground are black.

See, when we talk about TV diversity, we're often talking about how many actors of color are starring on our TV sets. But that rarely accounts for the divide between the actors of color who play protagonists and those who are shunted into supporting roles, where they're more likely to be killed off.

The Sleepy Hollow uproar, arguably, stemmed largely from the fact that fans of the show believed Abbie was a co-protagonist, while the writers clearly believed the show was about Ichabod. That divide, when it opens up between a series and a fan base, is almost always a recipe for trouble.

I would argue that the most important types of diversity are the ones TV is lagging in — diversity behind the scenes and diversity among story protagonists. On the whole, it still defaults to the idea that stories should be about straight white men, and even when it expands its horizons to include more diverse stories, it has a tendency to suggest that those stories should be told by straight white men. This approach has led to debacles like the recent controversy over The 100's third season. (Read more about that controversy from my colleague Caroline Framke here.)

Underground neatly skirts both of those problems. Its co-creator (with Joe Pokaski), Misha Green, is a black woman, and the series is full of vibrant, beautifully drawn black characters.

In "Troubled Water" alone, there are scenes where Ernestine, the house slave who killed Pearly Mae, breaks down over her choice to do so, and scenes where Ernestine's daughter and fellow house slave, Rosalee, must prove her value to the escape effort. (That deus ex machina I mentioned up top just barely works because it's Rosalee who pulls it off, thus resolving her character arc.)

Underground balances action with emotional acuity

"Troubled Water" provides vital insight into the life of Ernestine (Amirah Vann).
WGN America

In that sense, "Troubled Water" works because it roots both of its conflicts in a mother and daughter struggling with the weight of choices they made in prior episodes. In particular, it's a key window into Rosalee's psyche that the show has needed for a bit.

The scenes featuring the two women are also welcome, simply because Underground is, on some level, an action series, with lots of chases and narrow escapes. The quieter, more character-driven scenes serve as the fuel that lets the show get away with some of those narrow escapes and drives the less exciting sequences. (This episode, for instance, largely consists of the characters, on the aforementioned riverboat, drifting aimlessly due to a broken rudder and waiting to run aground, which isn't precisely enthralling.)

But the episode also digs deep into Ernestine's relationship with her master — who is Rosalee's father. In fact, the reason he's so keen to catch the runaway slaves is that he's connected to Rosalee, and as the other runaway slaves slowly realize this, their recriminations against Rosalee form the episode's backbone.

At its best, "Troubled Water" is a knotty, emotionally complex examination of the power imbalances and abuses that slavery created. At its worst, it's a bunch of people yelling at each other on a broken boat.

There's a slightly ironic counterpart to all of the above, which "Troubled Water" also made me realize. Around the episode's midpoint, during a scene with a thinly sketched, mustache-twirling racist reverend who serves as one of the episode's minor villains, I found myself rolling my eyes at how all of the show's villains feel like cardboard cutouts of actual characters, to say nothing of its two most righteous white characters, a pair of suffragists who hide runaway slaves in their home and might as well have the label, "See, not all white people are evil!" pinned to their chests.

And yet the longer I thought about this, the more I realized that what I was feeling was almost exactly what any people of color must feel when members of their own races wander, unimaginatively, into the stories of white people, as happens on every TV network, every day. You overlook it if you're enjoying the story, but it still gets under the skin and feels a little like, "Well, it's not really that way."

Art, at its best, is a machine that generates empathy for people who are different from us. And what's fascinating about Underground isn't just that it allows for such a multifaceted portrayal of the horrors of slavery (something it's pulling off much better than you'd expect for a low-budget basic cable show).

It's also that the series allows for those of us who are used to having stories about us to realize, even if only for a few fleeting seconds, how everybody else must have been feeling all along. Underground is not a perfect show, but it's one that makes me want everybody else to be better.

Underground airs Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern on WGN America.

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