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'Underground' producer weighs in on recent slavery comparisons

George Lucas found himself backpedaling after he likened the Disney Co. to “white slavers.” Presidential hopeful Ben Carson referred to Obamacare as the “worst thing since slavery.” And President Obama recently compared gun control to the abolition of slavery.

During WGN America’s panel Friday for its upcoming plantation-set drama “Underground” at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena, a reporter asked the show’s producers their thoughts on the use of the term "slavery" as a means to draw a connection and what, in some cases, appears to be a trivializing of its history.

“We’ve seen a lot of hyperbolic comparison,” said Akiva Goldsman, executive producer of the new drama series. “Everything is ‘slavery,’ everything is ‘the holocaust.’ These words have specific meaning. It’s the corruption of words that begins the corruption of ideas. That is terrifying.”

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“Underground” follows the journey of a group of American slaves who plan an escape from a Georgia plantation and are helped by a secretly  abolitionist couple running a station on the Underground Railroad.

Goldsman, picking up on the idea that modern comparisons to slavery may be overwrought, said the Underground Railroad period has “somehow become obscured by shadow. It’s not taught, we don’t learn it … it’s the vanishing of our past, and therefore the whole wonderful notion we are doomed to repeat it becomes ever more likely.”

The 10-episode first season will premiere commercial-free on March 9. Goldsman said the intent is not to teach history, but rather to shed a light on the “truth of where we come from.”

The show features a sprawling ensemble cast, some of whom were on hand Friday to promote the series: Jurnee Smollett-Bell (“True Blood,” “Friday Night Lights”), Aldis Hodge (“Straight Outta Compton”), Christopher Meloni (“Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”), Alano Miller (“Jane The Virgin”), Jessica de Gouw (“Arrow,” “Dracula”), and  Amirah Vann (“Girls”).

Singer-songwriter John Legend, who last year won an Oscar for the song “Glory” from the “Selma” soundtrack (cowritten by and performed with Common), also serves as an executive producer on “Underground.” In addition to those duties, Legend oversees the drama’s musical score.

At the top of the panel, the show’s theme song, titled “Heaven’s Door,” was played for reporters. The song, which Legend produced, was written by Angelique Cinelu and Curtis Richardson and performed by Alice Smith, whom Legend has known since his days playing small clubs in New York.

In speaking of the goal of the drama’s score — the pilot includes the use of the Kanye West song "Black Skinhead" from his 2013 album "Yeezus" — Legend said:

“We didn't want to feel too stuck in the period. We didn’t want music to make people feel like they were going to a museum.”

I tweet about TV (and other things) here: @villarrealy

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