Things are about to get unreal for Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in HBO’s “Lovecraft Country.” (Eli Joshua Ade/HBO)
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade/HBO, HO / TNS
“Lovecraft Country,” debuting 8 p.m. Aug. 16 on HBO, is a series that couldn’t have existed a decade or even five years ago.
The blend of grisly horror and history lesson, genre revisionism and racial realpolitik, roadhouse blues and contemporary hip-hop makes for an often brutally unique viewing experience whose only recent rough equivalent is another HBO series, “Watchmen.” Yet, as groundbreaking as it is, “Lovecraft Country” — judging from the first five episodes offered for review — sometimes comes up short in emotional impact as it wallows in its Grand Guignol special effects.
Based on the novel by Matt Ruff and the brainchild of showrunner Misha Green, who also oversaw the series “Underground” about the Underground Railroad, “Lovecraft Country” also bears the fingerprints of its famous producers, Jordan Peele (“Get Out,” “Us”) and J.J. Abrams (“Lost,” “Westworld,” “Fringe”). Considering the track record of all involved, they seem to have had unfettered freedom, and that license is a sword that cuts both ways. But when it works, it works brilliantly.
Like the novel, “Lovecraft Country” takes the literary spirit of celebrated, early-20th-century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (“The Call of Cthulu”), an avowed racist, and turns it inside out. At the heart of “Lovecraft Country,” set in mid-’50s, Jim Crow-afflicted America, is an African American family just struggling to get by but who also happen to be in love with science, science fiction and horror. “Good Times” it’s not.
That tension with African Americans in white spaces — in this case, gothic horror — is addressed in the first scenes of “Lovecraft Country.” Korean War vet Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors, “Da 5 Bloods,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”) — everyone calls him “Tic” — is traveling on a segregated bus from Florida to visit family in Chicago. He’s reading “A Princess of Mars,” by famed fantasy writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, and it tells of the adventures of an ex-Confederate officer who’s transported to the Red Planet after hiding out in a cave.
Tic describes the book to the only other Black passenger but she’s skeptical that he could like a story about the exploits of a Confederate soldier. “Stories are like people,” he replies quietly. “You just try and cherish them, overlook their flaws.”
It’s a shout-out to Black nerds everywhere who often loved stories by writers who didn’t always love them back.
But soon, Tic has more in his mind than his fantasy adventures. He’s going to Chicago to meet his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), and aunt Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) to try to find out what has happened to his missing father Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams). George runs a publication called “The Safe Negro Travel Guide,” a parallel to the very real “The Negro Motorist Green Book” that inspired the movie “Green Book.”
George is a fan of horror literature and road trips, so when it seems something weird is going on with Montrose — who may be in a strange town in the middle of what’s called Lovecraft Country, fictional Massachusetts hamlets in H.P. Lovecraft’s stories — he and Tic are off and running. Along for the ride is childhood friend Leti (Jurnee Smollett), who has her own personal demons she’s escaping.
But if “Lovecraft Country” were just about whatever happens to our heroes at the end of that road, it would be just an episode of “Scooby Doo.” It’s about the America of that time and America now, and when it’s making that connection most personally — as in the pre-title sequence of episode three or the character arc of Leti’s sister, Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), who is an embodiment of being careful what you wish for — it’s powerful.
When Tic, George and Leti are chased by cops out of a sundown town with seconds to spare or when Leti is allowed to buy a fixer-upper on Chicago’s white north side — only to end up in the street in the “hands up, don’t shoot” position — it feels grounded and suspenseful. Sometimes the worst horrors are the most mundane and most lethal.
It’s less successful when it spins off into blood-drenched fantasy. The climax of episode two feels straight out of a lesser-grade, special-effects-laden superhero movie.
Unrated (sex, violence)
When: 8 p.m. Sundays
*** ½ (out of 5)
Still, for all of its excesses, “Lovecraft Country” is worth visiting. Just be sure to leave before the sun sets.
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