An escaped slave runs through the woods, fleeing a brutal plantation, stumbling over roots and hiding behind trees from the masters’ all-too-illuminating torches: while it’s uniquely well shot and edited, it still feels like an archetype, whether you’ve seen one antebellum period drama or many. But it’s fair to say that no scene like this one has ever been scored to Kanye West, whose percussive “Black Skinhead” is perfectly in sync with our escapee’s ragged breathing.
Underground, WGN America’s new series about slaves seeking freedom in 1857 Georgia, premieres March 9. Co-created by Sons of Anarchy writer Misha Green (who is African American) and Heroes writer Joe Pokaski (who is not), it’s a big bet for the Chicago-based cable network. If this connects with audiences in a way previous efforts haven’t, WGN will have an identity beyond “the Blue Bloods rerun channel.”
Underground rises to the challenge with urgent storytelling and a heavy dose of contemporary edge. The ensemble show focuses most closely on Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), an innocent for whom freedom isn’t realistic enough even to be a fantasy. Coaxed by would-be escapee Noah (Aldis Hodge), she evolves into a woman bold enough to run for her life. Making that evolution so realistic is impressive, given just how little Rosalee has been allowed to learn of the world outside.
Another great strength is Underground’s depiction of the psychological warfare waged by plantation masters, pitting slaves against one another, throwing them parties and allowing their children to play with white kids before casually mentioning that some of them will be working the fields soon. It’s something more insidious than the pure sadism of 12 Years a Slave, and truly creepy to watch.
The show has both clockwork tension and, on its margins, chaos. Smollett-Bell’s real-life brother, Empire standout Jussie Smollett, appears as an agent of disorder, and the swiveling loyalties of characters including Cato (Alano Miller), a slave seemingly unafraid to turn on his fellows for the masters’ approval, generates enough drama to sustain the show for seasons to come.
Singer John Legend serves as producer, yet the music, at times out of sync with the show’s gravity, works less well than director Anthony Hemingway’s sharply contemporary style. Broadway’s Hamilton shares the impulse to blend hip-hop and history, but a scene in which slaves dance to the music of R&B star the Weeknd is less Ham than cheese. Yet with its gifted ensemble and propulsive momentum, Underground has much to recommend it. Its pride of place on WGN’s schedule is a reminder that the broad world of TV has become the place where all sorts of people get to tell their stories. Underground is unapologetically itself. As Rosalee says to Noah when she learns he’s placed tattoos over the scars of the whip, “It’s not about letting the white folks define your story, right? It’s about making it your own.”
Underground airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. E.T. on WGN America
This appears in the March 14, 2016 issue of TIME.
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