Amazon Originals just don’t seem to get the same level of hype as those of that other big streamer. They release quietly, often garnering a small but dedicated group of fans but never quite making it to trending on twitter or talked about over lunch territory. But this series may be the thing to break the spell – The Underground Railroad is a masterful, powerful piece of television.
Based on the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction by Colson Whitehead, over ten chapters the series tells the story of Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a slave on a Georgia plantation who, after years of abuse at the hands of her ‘master’ Terrance Randall (Benjamin Walker), decides to try and escape. Helped by fellow slave Caesar (Aaron Pierre), they discover an underground railroad – hence the title – hidden under the southern states, which carries them north and to safety. Except, it’s not really safe at all. In each chapter the pair journey on to a new destination in the hopes of freedom, and at each place they discover new, horrifying ways they can be oppressed and abused.
This is probably not the right choice for your weekend bingewatch – it’s heavy, and deals with the darkest aspects of humanity and our history. The story blends historically accurate and entirely fictitious elements together – whilst an underground network of abolitionists did exist in the 19th century, there obviously wasn’t an elaborate train system underground, and you’ll notice that the cities look rather advanced for the period it’s set – creating an unnerving and dreamlike atmosphere that is amplified by the tense soundtrack and the moody lighting. This is all the work of the show’s brilliant director Barry Jenkins, who has spared no expense in making this a visually astonishing series.
Shows like this don’t come along every day, which is why we think Amazon maybe missed a trick by not releasing the shows weekly. The Underground Railroad demands to be savoured, so we say put your phone down, draw the curtains, and get immersed in this beautiful, harrowing, epic bit of telly.
The critics are loving this series. Lucy Mangan of The Guardian gives it five stars, calling it “hallucinatory, magical, allegorical and yet permanently in the pursuit of historical and eternal truths, the resurrection of lost perspectives and the uplifting of unheard voices.” And it got another five star review from The Telegraph’s Benji Wilson. He says this is “quite simply one of the most powerful pieces of television you will ever see… there are landscapes and vistas to make the heart soar and, thanks to stellar performances across the board, a sense of wonder infuses the whole – wonder at the will to survive, to live and to love.” In The LA Times, Lorraine Ali praises Jenkins, who she says “is renowned for his nuance, subtlety and meditative silences, and those qualities transfer to television, with each episode of the series resembling a short film — beautiful cinematography, carefully considered locations, meticulous sets and wardrobe.”
First shown May 2021. You can watch the trailer by pressing play on the show image, or by clicking here.