WTF is FYC? Part 5: Underground


Stardust by Proxy

A Series Leading to Emmy



WGN America


Underground FYC Invite


Waiting in line over an hour is de rigueur for most FYC events and parking is typically challenging anywhere in L.A., so I factored in an extra half-hour for this one. Luckily, I nip into a spot on the 3rd floor just as a car pulls out. Sure enough, the line stretches around the front entrance and deep into the bowels of the parking garage. I'm tired today. It's Sunday, a day for rejuvenation, so I'm in an energy conserving mode and not motivated to engage in zippy chatter with anyone more animated than I am right now. 

After checking in, those of us who opt to claim our seats, face a rather uncomfortable gauntlet of multiple party-people lines waiting for drinks converging with a single 30-foot snake hoping for coffee and sweet treat wake-me-ups. Poor planning for such a small space, but I sense opportunity in this mayhem.

 Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, CA view from the parking garage

Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, CA view from the parking garage

I recognize the inside of this room as the broadcast center for The Golden Globes and it's nice to soak in that kind of professional ambience for a moment, but I pointedly make my way to a seat I see perfectly positioned to serve my purpose. Perhaps because it was billed as a Sunday Gospel Brunch, I note that several attendees have dressed in something other than weekend jeans and tee shirts. Good job! Now, I'm thinking, what if I leave my sweater on my seat and pop in the mimosa line from the inside? I go for it. Very small lines in front of 4 bartenders. Well done, Heather Lea. Who cares about a 30 peep deep flour and sugar fix right now when it's this easy to belly up to the bar?

  Pre-Screening for Underground @ the Beverly Hilton, Beverly Hills, CA

Pre-Screening for Underground @ the Beverly Hilton, Beverly Hills, CA

Acoustics! Acoustics! Acoustics! 

My perfectly positioned seat not only has an unobstructed view, but I'm directly below a speaker in what I'm convinced is part of one of the more powerful audio system arrays I've encountered in an FYC venue to date. Of course, I must mention that our newly renovated TV Academy Theater, renamed as the Saban Center for Media's Wolf Theatre, boasts state of the art sound and picture. It's to be the flagship for Dolby Laboratories' continuing innovation for the next ten years. The lights dim and Jason McGee and the P.S.A.L.M.S. Choir take the stage for soulful renditions of Ride On, King Jesus, and Walk Over God's Heaven.

Click below and have a listen.


 Underground Creators: Misha Green & Joe Polaski, Director: Anthony Hemingway, Actors: Jurnee Smollet-Bell, Aldis Hodge, Amirah Vann, Christopher Meloni, Alano Miller, Jessica De Gouw

Underground Creators: Misha Green & Joe Polaski, Director: Anthony Hemingway, Actors: Jurnee Smollet-Bell, Aldis Hodge, Amirah Vann, Christopher Meloni, Alano Miller, Jessica De Gouw


I'm shivering. Sure the choir has everything to do with it, but I'm also freezing in this room! Apparently, music is a driving force for this show. We prepare to watch an episode when to my surprise, contemporary sound cut against period images of slaves on the run a la music video fills the room and the screen. I see John Legend listed as a producer and the connection to music becomes clear. This series takes several opportunities to weave R&B and soul sounds of today into the historic story of plantation slaves and those who attempt a perilous journey to freedom. If it's a creative choice to modernize this story, I give it that, but it's distracting and makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps this is the intention? We all know the subject matter is uncomfortable. 

What is undeniable is the portrayal of absolute dominion over slaves showing them both physically and mentally brainwashed ... those in the fields at the backbreaking work of cotton picking ... those just above field service tasked with maintaining control over the workings of the plantation and fellow slaves ... those chosen to serve inside the master's home ... fear and mistreatment rule in Underground.  

Slaves appear to have been internally segregated. Many, after years of service, act as if strangers to one another, afraid to step beyond routine, afraid to bond and trust fellow slaves, afraid to believe in the promise of flight ... a promise, thematically, literally carved in blood within the lyrics of a song on a tattered shirt. 

The series examines historic roles played during the time of the Underground Railroad. Christopher Meloni is unnervingly unapologetic as bounty hunter, August Pullman. Aldis Hodge is all-in as Noah, who's determination to escape is unwavering. Jurnee Smollet-Bell, as Rosalee, a house slave inexperienced in life, finds love and the promise of the outside world with August. Using her wits to down the trackers' dogs is just as wondrous as her first encounter with fireflies, as the series weaves life on the run swings between their small band of runaways, to those chasing them, to those committed to helping them. For Jessica De Gouw and Marc Blucas, who play Elizabeth and John Hawkes, helping the cargo is not without the obvious danger of discovery, but not every runaway understands the the couple's higher purpose. Reed Diamond is the smug, moneyed plantation owner, Tom Macon. Ever the narcissistic politician, he enjoys war and power as much as his entitled and demanding wife, Suzanna, played by Andrea Frankle. Amirah Vann, is Ernestine, the key slave in the master's house. She runs a tight ship with a tight lip, having managed to set her daughter (Rosalee) up for house service as well. Alano Miller, plays Cato, the plantation's overseer, a man not to be trusted or might he be the most instrumental figure in the run to freedom? Miller grew up in Florida, the son of an educator and an architect. I wonder what it was like for him ... 

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The actors deliver fine performances in the Louisiana heat ... something else that makes me uncomfortable. My grade school through high school years were lived out in that sticky, cicada song filled heat. Florida, for better or worse, provided safe haven for our family during a tumultuous time, only I didn't expect such culture shock on top of it. Manuals outlining what species of spider, frog, snake, alligator, ant, berry, or plant that could kill you were part of our introductory class on Florida history. I won't discuss the roaches, but they crawled and flew and were everywhere. But nothing prepared us for the racial discontent that was still a part of life there. 

Negroes were bussed to schools. Clashes between races were common. In middle school, word of gangs from the high school walking the halls wielding broken bottles, pipes, and bats swinging at anyone who was white became somewhat common. Cliques of privileged white girls were no better, often demanding ill treatment of others. This included a female "black soldier" whom they'd "sick" on you if they felt a confrontation or beating was warranted. Yes, I talked this gal down in the bathroom, alone, after everyone fled. She was 3 times my size. Why me, you wonder? Well, the one and only time I experienced hormonal growth in my bra-size was at this time. This clique was convinced I was stuffing my bra and the soldier was sent to find out if I was. Good Lord.

We were organized in the classroom and lockers alphabetically by last name. In the 6th grade, I was set upon by two African American boys whose last names flanked mine. Although they never scared me, they never left me alone. I talked to them in an effort to reduce their relentless preoccupation with me ... grabbing and touching me under my dress ... always in my personal space. Overly laden with heavy books and late for my bus after school one day, I had to drop some of the load in my locker or be left behind. It was not good to be left on school grounds alone. 

One of the guys was in the locker area when I came around the corner. The other arrived shortly after. They came at me, holding my arms, and I knew what they wanted to do. I don't know how, but I managed to get one off balance, throw my books in the locker, slip out of the grip of the other and run like the wind for the bus. Did I tell my mother, who was a working teacher in that very school system? I have no memory of anything else related to this incident, except for another involving one of the same boys.


 1965 Time Life,  Early Man;  The  Ascent of Man  by Rudolph Zallinger

1965 Time Life, Early Man; The Ascent of Man by Rudolph Zallinger


Being a very studious young person, I'd checked out a TIME LIFE (hard copy back then) book, Early Man. The cover depicted part of a drawing of the transformation from ape to upright homo sapien. I was seated by myself on a bench outside in the commons area within full view of the administration's office - a ground to ceiling expanse of glass about 15 feet away - when this boy sat ridiculously close to me. I scooted away and he followed. I moved again. He followed. Then he reached for the book. Upon seeing the cover and commenting on my reading a book about naked men, he took it from me. I stood, facing him, tugging at the book, "Give me back my book." He held it tightly and when I gave it good pull, his grip released, but not before the edge of the hard binding grazed his cheek. Unaware of this, I turned and began to walk away.

Suddenly, I was spun around, pushed, verbally attacked, "B****, look what you did to my face." Then, a slap. I held the book up for defense, as he continued to yell, push, and move me away from the administration's view. Surely someone had witnessed this? I must have struck back. I couldn't let him repeatedly hit me. A crowd circled, but no one did anything to help. My mind raced, how am I going to get out of this?  Then I heard voices over his. Two guys had stepped inside the ring and were challenging him. They were protecting me. Oh, the relief and gratitude I felt. While one tried talking him down, the other took my shoulders and asked if I was all right. And these weren't just any two boys; they were the two most popular boys in school. Girls I knew had a crush on one or both of them. 


The next thing I remember is sitting in the Principal's office waiting for my mom. This was a big thing that had happened, since my mother was a teacher in the school system. Imagine the indignation I felt after being told that no matter what I wasn't to hit "them" back. "Am I just supposed to stand there and get hit?" Such was the fear back then - the all around fear - and the absolute powerlessness I felt in this riotous environment. Hostile and relentless, that was public school in the south. Yet, my mother and our own family upbringing never harbored any sides.

My mother told me that she'd taken jobs teaching migrants, because they were the jobs nobody wanted. She needed work. She was a divorced single mother with three kids at a time when it just wasn't acceptable to have this status. Mom told me that schools were integrated, but all the principals were white. Years later, when I went to high school, we had an African American principal ... a man we all adored.

When I began writing this post, I didn't intend to travel into or share these particular personal experiences, but they came pouring out. It saddens me that young people are still being subjected to some of the harshest realities of inhumanity against humanity: crimes against the mind and body perpetuated by fear and the illusion that power makes it go away. For me, this kind of slavery stains and chains the soul throughout life with no preference for minority, race, or gender. I suppose we all need someone to step inside the ring and ask, "Are you OK?" 

"Freedom is not a stick of wood to be presented to obedient dog. It is a thing all men deserve."
As spoken by Spartacus on STARZ

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Briefly discussing the post panel reception now seems fitting, because writing this post pushed personal memories into the heart of the piece. So let's just get it out of the way and wrap it up!

Entrapment. Lines that don't move. The same narrow passage going in is in play on the way out. The brunch buffet service is dispensed on several long tables, but a single line is the only way to them, and for me, the wait isn't worth it. You may know by now I prefer organic and fresh fare, but this is a cafeteria-style breakfast for those who eat mystery eggs, bacon, sausage, muffins, pastries. There is some fruit, which I accept. Is it organic? Probably not. I did go for another mimosa, however, and find some friends out on the patio. Why didn't we have the food service out here, I wonder?

Softly at first, Stevie Wonder's As rises, beckoning me back inside. The choir is rocking it. Oh, they are so good!

I spy director Anthony Hemingway nearby as I'm belting it out with the choir. I linger for a chat and a congratulatory handshake on a job well done. Having worked his way up from assistant directing, this young man's list of directing credits on high profile television shows is impressive. There's no moss growing on this guy! 

On the way out, WGN has gift bags for us! My favorite is a wooden journal I've written about before in my Earth Day post:

''Last season for Manhattan and again this season for Underground, WGN thoughtfully offered a bag of swag for attendees to their FYC events of these shows. I will tell you that we're rarely treated to swag at these events, so when we get something to take away, it’s a nice perk. At least I think it is.

Inside WGN’s bags have been nice tee-shirts (sized appropriately) and small journals made in the USA by Woodchuck. These books, bound in wood, etched with the show’s name, are special. They are part of Woodchuck’s Buy One. Plant One. … a tree-planting initiative that helps our Earth! A beautiful card, the latitude and longitude of where your tree is planted etched on a wood strip and signed by Benjamin Jo VandenWymelenberg, Woodchuck’s Founder and CEO is thoughtfully inserted in the journal. I love this company!"

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