HBO's supernatural saga explores real-world prejudice and gets lost in overly familiar genre territory.

By Darren Franich
August 13, 2020 at 08:30 AM EDT
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Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

In the Lovecraft Country premiere, Korean War veteran Atticus (Jonathan Majors) sets off to find his missing father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams). Along with his brainy uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and their free-spirited pal Leti (Jurnee Smollett), "Tic" drives from Chicago's South Side to backcountry Massachusetts, withstanding gun-toting white terrorists, murderous cops, and even some human-chomping monsters.

The HBO drama, premiering Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, has the recognizable outline of a fantasy narrative: a quest across lands of omnipresent horror, danger around every turn. That landscape happens to be everyday America, rife with casual segregation, sundown towns, and the perpetual threat of violence against our Black heroes. These are 2020 horrors barely filtered through a 1954 setting — and the premiere's structure is its own freewheeling journey through big set pieces. There's trench warfare, a soaring block-party musical number, a car chase, a cabin in the woods: no complaints!

The problems start in episode 2, a mansion mystery full of cheesebag dialogue and spooooooky twists that wouldn't pass the CW smell test. You came for the antiracist road trip to the heart of America, and you're getting bad Assassin's Creed cutscenes with shirtless Tony Goldwyn prattling on about Eden. The leads get lost behind an anvil-dump of mythology, much of it circling a pair of bland blond aristocrats played by Abbey Lee and Jordan Patrick Smith. Episode 3 stuffs a haunted house full of clichés: a killer elevator, Ouija missives from beyond, ghost faces in photographs, ritual goat murder. Then the gang goes spelunking in episode 4, which requires Majors to say the words "This is some Journey to the Center of the Earth-type s—!"

In fairness, H.P. Lovecraft couldn't write dialogue either. The influential writer crafted luscious nightmares — and was the kind of demonic WASP supremacist who thought the Irish weren't white enough. Lovecraft Country honors its namesake's genre legacy and challenges his vocal racism, remixing mystic terror into everyday oppression. It's a topical concept, visible in other meta-Lovecraft inquisitions like N.K. Jemisin's exuberant The City We Became and Alan Moore's despondent Providence. Lovecraft imagined frights beyond limitation, monstrosities so embedded in human experience that our planet — our very souls — stood revealed as playthings built by gods who detest us. Contemporary scholarship identifies that encompassing fear as a symptom of Lovecraft's own racial animosity: the consternation of a hateful white guy too scared to, like, walk down the street in Brooklyn.

He's a good monument to tear down — or, at least, to decorate with some glorious graffiti. In its first five episodes, though, Lovecraft Country is full of paranormal clichés and un-scary jump scares, with limp CG thrills and some goofy TV-MA sex scenes (on a sink, on the stairway, on top of a car!). The ambitious themes can't hide awkward plotting, and there are times when characters just blurt out secrets because they're frustrated. Narrative momentum is all hurry up and wait: a whole episode spent getting a Thing that immediately gets taken away.

The evocations of '50s life can be enthralling, and there's something intriguing going on with Montrose that digs deeper into the era's subcultures. Yet too many of the adventure sequences suggest the outright lameness of a '90s video game adaptation — right down to the slicing subterranean pendulum defeated via carefully timed platform hopping. The killer soundtrack trends playfully anachronistic, blending Leikeli47 and Cardi B with Gil Scott-Heron and Ntozake Shange. Yet other anachronisms are just silly. On a few occasions, characters build massive information dossiers out of thin air, as if the local library circa 1954 were a Google-level depository of essential exposition.

Majors was a charming eccentric in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and his diligent weariness brought some low-key whimsy to Da 5 Bloods' all-about-everything excess. Tic is a confounding hero, though: a skinny nerd grown into a ripped soldier, ruminative or cynical or fanboy-ish depending on what the plot calls for. Leti's initially more fun, a prodigal semi-bohemian with a cross-country lifestyle. Two early twists sand off her edges, making her just another hero type working on the central mystery. Vance is great as always, calmly amused when he isn't believably terrified. When Williams shows up, the two veteran actors seem to be in their own little show about two very different brothers united and divided by shared turmoil.

Lovecraft Country digs deep into the regular horrors of the American experiment. It also, unfortunately, reflects the anxieties of the modern TV drama, frantically serializing itself through cliffhanger hysterics, desperately distracting the viewer from changing to a thousand channels. The most interesting character is, worrisomely, the furthest from the larger narrative. Leti's sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) is a singer who magically crosses race lines into a bizarro workplace parable, which involves grody transformation effects and a memorably nasty use of a stiletto heel. The subplot isn't perfect. Another character has to explain how her transformation is "not scientific, mind you, but magical, though one could argue they are one and the same." One could argue that line was already stale when Chris Hemsworth paraphrased it in Thor 1.

Lovecraft Country arrives in the midst of a generational reckoning with America's history of racial oppression, and it cuts between colonial history and family secrets. Despite that vast historical backdrop and the central magical conspiracy, these early hours are most convincing as an old-fashioned monster-of-the-week structure with sharp social inflection. That kind of standalone storytelling is just about a lost art in TV drama, though, and viewers will recognize the delaying tactics. (Tic spends one episode slowly translating an ancient language — a punishing bit of water-treading in a season only 10 chapters long.) Showrunner Misha Green adapted Matt Ruff's novel, alongside executive producers Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams. I respect their ambition, and hope the series finds its footing. Right now, they're skewering Lovecraft's beliefs but can't compete with his singular horror vision. They're better people making worse art. C+

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