‘The Underground Railroad’ Is Essential Viewing – but Not During Another Senseless War

Barry Jenkins’ powerful and moving slavery drama deserves your full attention, which is impossible when the streets are burning and the missiles are flying as Israel and Hamas offer their own version of ‘Groundhog Day’

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Thuso Mbedu as Cora in "The Underground Railroad."
Thuso Mbedu as Cora in "The Underground Railroad."Credit: Amazon Prime
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

I know this isn’t a very encouraging thing for a TV critic to say, but I haven’t been in the mood to watch television this past week.

When the main “show” is taking place outside your window, courtesy of those two forever-bickering siblings otherwise known as Israel and the Palestinians, it’s hard to focus on something as trite as “entertainment,” no matter how important or worthy the show.

That’s why this has been the hardest TV column I’ve ever written – even tougher than the one where, despite being a die-hard republican, I had to say nice things about season 4 of “The Crown.”

The problem is that reality will always trump the alternative realities being offered by your TV screen. A push notification bringing news of more death on either side, or a missile attack on your city, will instantly drag you out of the world you craved in the vain hope of blotting out all the craziness and vileness unfolding around you.

Other than the obvious things I remember from the 2014 summer war – the horrific death toll, the doom-scrolling through grim story after grim story, the annoying bird call that sounded uncannily like the start of a missile-warning siren – my most indelible memory involves taking my youngest kid to see “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” as the war neared its end.

The movie was interrupted halfway through by a warning siren, completely taking us out of one dystopian nightmare (unless you’re simian, I guess) and dumping us back into our existing nightmare. We opted against returning to the auditorium and, to this day, I’ve not been able to rewatch the film, unwilling to be transported back to August 2014 and all that death, destruction and hatred. Still, I’m sure it all ended well for humankind, right?

Hoping to avoid a similar fate this week, I left my TV viewing till the very last moment, in the naive belief that peace – or whatever passes for that in these parts – would break out and my watching wouldn’t be interrupted by horrific news updates or dashes to the safe room, or mamad, as Israelis call it, as the sirens blared. More fool me.

Incidentally, if anyone’s interested in my new sitcom idea about a mixed Jewish-Arab Israeli couple living with both their parents during the flare-up, feel free to get in touch. It’s called “Mamad About You.”

‘The Underground Railroad’ (Amazon Prime)

If we lived in a normal part of the world, this is the moment where I would be able to extol the virtues of Barry Jenkins’ 10-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Underground Railroad.”

But because we live in a place where we have the “Gaza metro” and the spirit of the Jewish Underground (that far-right bunch of crazies from the 1980s), I decided to quit watching after three episodes. That’s when the latest siren sounded in Tel Aviv and made me realize that the deadly remake of “Groundhog Dog” taking place on my doorstep had won: I couldn’t do the show justice with everything taking place around me.

It was also impossible to watch “Railroad” without viewing it through the prism of what’s happening here. For instance, when a character says in the third episode, “I don’t know why the world is the way it is. In some ways, we are all God’s children, yet he’s damned some more than others,” I immediately found myself thinking about kids in Gaza rather than the horrors of slavery.

Then there’s this line by one of our protagonists, Caesar (Aaron Pierre), explaining a passage from “Gulliver’s Travels”: “[Jonathan Swift is] talking about giants like Goliath and how, on account of them being bigger and more powerful, they must also be more evil and more cruel.” Or, if you want yet another one that will suck you straight out of the drama you’re meant to be concentrating on, there’s this: “The savagery man is capable of when he believes his cause to be just.”

To be clear, once the fog of war lifts and we can stop running for shelter or to our phones for the latest news, I will happily sit down and watch Jenkins’ show, giving it the attention and focus it deserves. (OK, maybe “happily” is a little strong in the circumstances, because there are many gruesome scenes of violence and torture in “Railroad.”)

What’s clear, even three episodes in, is that this is shaping up to be one of television’s most vital shows of recent years. It looks and feels like a movie (albeit a very long one, the season is over 10 hours long), full of breathtaking shots proving that, in the right hands, something can look stunningly cinematic even when you’re viewing it on the smallest of screens. That should come as no surprise given that Jenkins previously gave us one of the most beautiful films of the past decade in 2016’s “Moonlight.”

Aaron Pierre as Caesar in "The Underground Railroad."Credit: Amazon Prime

In fact, the show starts with so many stunning shots, you wonder if this is going to be a television series or a video installation. But it soon finds a perfect balance between the visual and the characters as Whitehead’s haunting storyline kicks in.

Set in the antebellum South, the show reveals its slightly tweaked approach to the source material from the get-go with an arresting voice-over by our other main protagonist, a plantation slave named Cora (the mesmerising Thuso Mbedu).

“The first and last thing my moma gave me was apologies,” she informs us, staring mournfully into the camera as it slowly zooms in on her delicate features. It’s a slight twist on the line as it appears in the book (“The first things she gave to her daughter were apologies”) and shows how the series is able to really personalize the drama.

And while “The Underground Railroad” may be a fictional story about a real effort to help slaves escape from the South in the early 1800s, its depictions of white supremacy in the name of God strike a horrible parallel with some elements of present-day America.

Is it too much of a stretch to imagine someone like Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene – the Georgia lawmaker who believes that Black Lives Matter is “the strongest terrorist threat” facing America – saying a line like this, uttered by the leader of a community in a U.S. state where Black people are “outlawed”: “Our Southern heritage lies defenseless and imperiled, susceptible to contamination”?

I can’t wait for the shooting to stop here so I can return to Jenkins’ show and fully concentrate on the macabre miseries depicted there rather than those currently surrounding us.

‘Life’ (Yes)

Parking “The Underground Railroad” for another day (hopefully soon), I cast around for other new shows to recommend for those seeking refuge from our grim reality, and found two.

The first is Mike Bartlett’s “Life” (Yes VOD and Yes Drama), which first aired in Britain last year and is such a simple concept I can’t believe it hasn’t been mined more often.

I mean, how simple is this? We follow the occupants of four apartments in a converted old house in Manchester as each deals with their own personal crisis.

The beauty of the six-part series is that it shows us relatable, everyday problems being experienced by relatable, everyday people. Sure, they’re some of life’s bigger problems – coping with the death of a partner, learning secrets about your lifelong partner, sobriety and depression, an unusual family arrangement – but they’re all ones we may one day face or have already faced. (OK, maybe less so the plot about the young woman who gets pregnant after a one-night stand and now wants the biological father to be as involved in her baby’s upbringing as her new boyfriend is.)

This is unashamedly emotional stuff, a soapy but thoroughly engaging drama buoyed by a great British cast, led by Alison Steadman – is it wrong that I still choose to identify her from a role she played over 40 years ago: Beverly in Mike Leigh’s “Abigail’s Party”? – and Adrian Lester, an actor I never tire of watching thanks to his sensitive playing of understated characters.

The show is another success for creator Bartlett, who previously gave us the wonderfully over-the-top thriller “Doctor Foster” (starring Suranne Jones as a successful woman taking gleeful revenge on her cheating husband), and the somewhat hit-and-miss Fleet Street drama “Press.”

Alison Steadman, center, as Gail in Mike Bartlett's "Life."Credit: BBC/Drama Republic/James Stack / Courtesy of Yes

The great thing about Bartlett is that even when his shows don’t quite work, they’re always fascinating portraits of middle-class England that are both very specific to that world yet also universal (which may help explain why “Doctor Foster” has been successfully remade in both France and Turkey). At their best, his shows are funny, sad, warm, cold, cruel, heartening – and always peopled with memorable characters. Just like life itself.

‘Hacks’ (HBO Max)

Anyone looking for laughs as a form of escape from the missiles and mayhem should look no further than “Hacks,” a caustic new comedy on HBO Max (in America) that offers further proof, if needed, that the actress Jean Smart can do anything.

In many ways, Smart reminds me of Jessica Walter (who sadly died in March): a longtime “jobbing” actress who only gained recognition deep into her career. For Walter it was as meretricious matriarch Lucille Bluth in “Arrested Development”; for Smart it was as mobster mom Floyd Gerhardt in season 2 of “Fargo” in 2015 (or was I the only person arriving late to the Smart party?).

The actress, who turns 70 this year, has already proved herself an excellent comedy foil to Kate Winslet in the currently airing HBO crime drama “Mare of Easttown.” (And if you’re watching that, you should definitely see the “Saturday Night Live” spoof.) But she’s the undisputed star in “Hacks.”

Any resemblance between Smart’s aging comedian Deborah Vance and Joan Rivers is purely deliberate in this 10-part series, though I was also reminded of Walter’s Lucille Bluth thanks to Smart’s acid delivery (“I was just wondering why you would dress like Rachel Maddow’s mechanic” being one of the kinder ones).

Just like Rivers, Vance is the hardest-working stand-up in Las Vegas. When she’s not setting records for most consecutive gigs in the desert city (2,500 and counting), she’s appearing on the QVC shopping channel as a shameless shill or having streets named after her. “It’ll probably be a dead end with an abortion clinic on it,” she spits.

Yet aside from the coterie of assistants working at her Vegas mansion, hers is a pretty joyless life – when told that her sister is on the phone, she snaps: “How the hell did she get my number?”

At the opposite end of the scale in this odd-couple comedy is Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a young Hollywood writer whose nascent career is already under threat after she joked about the sexuality of a U.S. lawmaker on Twitter. What are the odds that, despite her fervent protestations (“I’m not going to write knock-knock jokes about how men don’t put the toilet seat down”), she’ll be forced to accept a job punching up Deborah’s now-staid comedy routine?

Jean Smart as stand-up comedian Deborah Vance in the comedy "Hacks."Credit: HBO Max

Fictional works about stand-up comedy are notoriously difficult to pull off on screen, but “Hacks” – executive-produced by modern-day comedy god Michael Schur (“The Good Place”) – succeeds by focusing almost entirely on off-stage dramas (though “drama” is perhaps misleading for the comic scenarios playing out here).

I still wince at the memory of seeing Sally Field playing a budding stand-up in the 1988 comedy “Punchline,” but to watch Smart is to believe that this woman has spent 50-plus years as a comedian, working her butt off to reach the top. I particularly liked the glint in her eye as she delivered a funny line while at lunch and immediately jotted it down in the notepad by her side. Everything is material, to paraphrase Nora Ephron.

Einbinder is equally funny as the other half of this comedy act, forever on the receiving end of Deborah’s cutting remarks but able to land a few blows of her own. And with a supporting cast including Ava’s useless agent and Deborah’s dysfunctional daughter, there’s a rat-a-tat quality to the script that makes the 30 minutes fly by. It’s the perfect distraction for all of those missiles flying past your window.

“The Underground Railroad” is out now on Amazon Prime, “Life” is on Yes VOD and Yes Drama on Wednesdays at 9:45 P.M., and “Hacks” is on HBO Max in America every Thursday.

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