HBO's Lovecraft Country adapts Matt Ruff's 2016 novel of the same name, which was inspired by the world of iconic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Nightmarish fantasy unfolds against the backdrop of 1950s America, a setting that offers very real nightmares of bigotry and segregation for the black characters the story centers around. Lovecraft Country blends creative flavors from the likes of Misha Green (Underground), Jordan Peele (Get Out), and J.J. Abrams (Super 8, Lost) into a truly unique viewing experience. And yet, for all its weird, the show manages to convey the idea of why the American experience has been more horrific for the underprivileged, than any work Lovecraft could've ever imagined.
Lovecraft Country follows Atticus Black (Jonathan Majors) embarking on a cross-country trip in search of his missing father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams). A recent veteran of the Korean War, Atticus has to first reconnect with family and old friends in Chicago to find clues as to what happened to his dad. That brings him into contact with his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), writer of a Negro travel guide, and Leti Dandrige (Jurnee Smollet-Bell), a fast-living girl who has also come crashing back into Chicago to reunite with her sister. Together, the three set off to follow Montrose's search into his dead wife's true heritage — a trail that leads straight into the dark happenings of "Lovecraft Country," in western Massachusetts.
Lovecraft Country manages to achieve a strange balancing act in its first arc of episodes (five of which were screened for press). At first, the tonal shifts in the show can be jarring — starting with its opening sequence, which goes full bore with a major set-piece full of Lovecraft's monsters and sci-fi creations run amok. That weird spectacle shifts quickly into a much more grounded and topical horror-drama about Black characters trying to survive in a '50s America, where segregation, Jim Crow Laws, and "Sundown Towns" offer a world of terror all their own. By the end of the pilot, real-world horror erupts into sci-fi horror as our grounded characters fully collide with the supernatural.
Admittedly, it's a lot to take in at first. However, while the collective visions of showrunner Green (Underground), Peele (Get Out), and Abrams (Lost, Super 8) start out somewhat at odds with one another, Lovecraft Country eventually does manage to settle into its identity as a strange beast, with all those competing flavors blending into one fine brew. Three episodes in (after the initial Abrams-style mystery is done), the series manages to feel both serialized in its larger story arcs, but also episodic with an anthology feel, as the focus shifts to some key supporting characters who get their moments to shine (like Wunmi Mosaku's Ruby Dandrige, who owns what will be one of Lovecraft Country's most buzzworthy episodes). Lovecraft Country manages to live up to its name by building out a whole world and mythos that can certainly propel Season One (and well beyond) with its strange tales. Think The Twilight Zone with more commentary and diversity - or the more recent example of Hulu's Castle Rock, only with some much stronger talent behind it.
Speaking of talent, series lead Jonathan Majors offers a complex and layered straight man to build this strange universe around, but it's the electric cast of characters around him that really make the show shine. Smollet-Bell (Birds of Prey, Trueblood) has been bubbling in Hollywood for a while, but Lovecraft Country finally gives her a spotlight to truly show her talent, and she doesn't waste a single opportunity. Leti is arguably the most dynamic and fun character in the cast, and Smollet nails drama, horror, and comedy (as well as song and dance) like it's nothing to juggle them all. Mad Max: Fury Road star Abbey Lee also brings a strange (but captivating) energy as the series' devil-like antagonist, Christina - as does Jordan Patrick Smith as Christina's creepy henchman, William. Lovecraft Country opens up nicely in subsequent episodes to let supporting cast members like Wunmi Mosaku and Michael K. Williams step up and lead some powerful episodic stories, with hints that other characters/actors will soon get similar treatment.
With Lovecraft Country, HBO has found its next Watchmen, mixing high production and social commentary with pulpy genre tropes. The early episodes succeed in generating enough interest in Lovecraft Country's mysteries and its world to get viewers invested, and hits with the kind of twists and spectacle that will definitely keep social media buzzing.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Lovecraft Country premieres on HBO and HBO Max starting Sunday, August 16th.