“The more things change, the more they stay the same” — hard to ignore, when you’re talking the abolitionist movement, civil rights and women’s equality with “Underground” co-creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski.
The duo may come from a genre background — having previously worked together on NBC’s “Heroes” — but, while those sensibilities still run rampant throughout WGN America’s fictional tale on this rough patch of American history, there’s a visceral sense of reality and heart that sticks out through each and every scene.
At its core, “Underground” is the love story between Noah (Aldis Hodge) and Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) — and in the slavery-ridden backdrop of the Southern United States, the idea of freedom can be summed up right there: Love is the coveted tie that binds. It’s this connection that binds our heroes — engaging the audience through an emotional roller coaster, while we root for the heroes and scowl at the villains.
There’s a lot at play in Season 2: The highly anticipated introduction of Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman is one of the most integral components this time around, and John Legend’s cameo as Frederick Douglass, feel especially relevant today.
During WGN America’s Winter TCA tour, in January, we sat down with Green and Pokaski to discuss the changes coming this season, their responsibility to the subject matter they are tackling, and the challenging aspect of researching Harriet Tubman — an iconic character whose mystique is still studied voraciously all these years later.
Research methods? How do you balance the fiction with the history?
Misha Green: These all come from historical books so, how is it so vastly different? I think it’s just that — us trying to get the huge scope of it. You know, one of the big things this season is literacy: Frederick Douglass taught himself how to read, and that’s such a fascinating thing to think about. This man taught himself how to read — and the penalty, if you were caught reading, was death.
I think that’s the challenge: Taking these pieces and, while not necessarily being able to tell that story with him [this season] but being able to tell that story with another character. To understand that all this stuff — even when it’s “fictionalized” — is coming from fact.
What is the challenge in sifting through all these texts?
Joe Pokaski: Our rule was to not be untrue. We needed to know that Harriet was an x or y. For example, Episode 6 was based solely on a Harriet Tubman biography written by Beverly Lowery. She wrote this fantastic book that made some basic assumptions about what her [Harriet’s] experience was… Based on other biographies, and on history. So we actually put together a draft where we made the text blue, signifying where Harriet actually said those words. Everything else was based on a story she told someone else.
Misha: That entire episode ends up being just Harriet talking. In 1858, one of the things we found out about Harriet Tubman was that she started giving speeches to small abolitionist groups about her life. So Episode 6 is the entirety of one of these talks in which Aisha Hinds channels Harriet Tubman for 45 minutes straight. It’s interlaced with the real words she actually said in interviews, as well as autobiographies.
Joe: So we came from a place of like: If Harriet Tubman gave a TED Talk, what would it sound like? We studied a lot of speeches, and I crafted something based on her experience, and based on her philosophies, to kind of build on that.
Will the music play a similar part in Season 2 as it did in Season 1?
Misha: Definitely. Our entire music team is back. So John [Legend]’s back, Raphael Saadiq… Laura Karpman — our scorer – is back. This year, we talked a lot about, What is the identity of Season 2?
Joe: It was almost a year ago where we were all listening to some of John’s new tracks and there was this one song where we were like, This is dope! This feels like it could be the montage at the end of the second season premiere. We hadn’t even written it yet, but we came around and it was like, We should try that song! John was nice enough to give us exclusive use of it, and it very much embodies what Season 2 is all about.
There must be a lot of pressure in exploring this subject matter — given how relevant it is all these years later. What is your first responsibility as showrunners?
Misha: Keep it entertaining.
Joe: Yeah. We talk a lot about this — we work in fiction and basically, you kind of bend over backward to create “The Hunger Games.” You can try to imagine this dystopian world where a hero, against all odds, fights the most ridiculous obstacles. Yet all we had to do was look back, and that exists in our history. For some reason, we never told the story of those heroes. Here, our responsibility is to do that.
Misha: And, you know, regarding the relevancy of today: I think that there are a lot of insidious things that are in the DNA of our American history that are very prevalent today. I look at this time and I look at someone like Harriet Tubman, what the Underground was doing and the insurmountable odds they were up against when they were doing it — and they were still fighting back. They were still changing the world for the better.
So, I think we can also look back at that time and see the parallels to the negatives — but also look at the positives. This is the first integrated civil rights movement in American history — they moved enslaved people 600 miles north to freedom! And then, once there, they were still fighting to make this country better.
Misha: There are good people in this country who know what’s right and will fight for that. That’s what I feel is so exciting to me about this season, especially with this idea of “citizen or soldier” — it’s not necessarily taking up arms for a fight, but what are you doing to fight against social injustice? Those parallels, for me, were very inspiring, and empowered me while I was writing it.
Season 2 of “Underground” premieres Wednesday, March 8, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on WGN America.