tv review

In Lovecraft Country, Monsters Past and Present Converge

Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors, and Jurnee Smollett co-star as travelers on the restricted byways of America in Lovecraft Country. Photo: Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

Monsters are everywhere in Lovecraft Country. In HBO’s new period piece from writer-producer Misha Green (Underground), about a Black Korean War veteran trying to find his missing father in segregated America, monsters emerge from dark forests, they block open roads, they smash through windows and doors. Some have slimy, grayish skin, tentacles, razor-sharp teeth, and dozens of eyes. Others are human: cops enforcing sundown policies; white business owners who won’t serve Black people; white families who support the Ku Klux Klan and segregation, who prefer Black Americans to fall into three categories: servile, invisible, or dead. The word monster is flexibly defined, blurring the boundaries that tend to separate straight drama from science fiction and fantasy, and applying it to the main characters’ inner lives as well. In that, the show’s tone owes a lot to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “The Eye of the Beholder” in particular), which was recently rebooted by one of Lovecraft’s executive producers, horror maestro Jordan Peele.

Random eruptions of hate speech, vigilante violence, and state-backed terror are the most obvious threats facing the show’s hero, Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors of The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Da 5 Bloods), and his family and friends as they travel the restricted byways of America, locating safe havens using Tic’s uncle’s guidebook for Black travelers (modeled on Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book). This series treats H.P. Lovecraft’s extra-dimensional evil as thought prompts for a homegrown epic about a side of postwar life that pop culture rarely focuses on, even now. The Frank Capra and Norman Rockwell iconography that defined so much of popular culture in the immediate postwar era — including much of its advertising — becomes ironic, even sinister, in a story built around the people who are largely excluded from it. Lovecraft Country’s scripts and performances make sure we feel the weight of sociopolitical reality bearing down on the characters at all times, even when they’re enjoying the most peaceful and beautiful parts of life, like a live band’s performance at a block party on Chicago’s South Side, where Tic was raised (the musicians jokingly reject requests to perform “white” songs), or a tender sexual interlude between Tic’s uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and his wife, Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), that turns faintly melancholy with our realization that once he gets in the family roadster and heads out into white America, he might not come back.

The bookworm Tic loves mid-century science fiction, but is keenly aware of the mental filtering process that allows him to enjoy it. In one of the earliest scenes in the premiere, which debuts Sunday night on HBO, Tic and another Black traveler walk along a country road after being denied access to a cross-country bus. Among other things, they discuss Tic’s current reading material, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars. The book’s hero, interplanetary visitor John Carter, is a white Confederate officer. Tic states that a young Black man can still enjoy fiction about a character who once fought for traitors trying to preserve slavery because human beings are complicated, and you have to take the good with the bad if you’re to have any hope of enjoying life. But there are faint notes of skepticism in Tic’s certitude, and the moment’s framing indicates that his comments about the book apply to his reality as well as the fiction that he loves. Fresh out of the Army, Tic just finished killing Asian people overseas on behalf of a country that has traditionally observed a “whites only” policy when it comes to keeping promises. And now he’s back in the segregated USA on the cusp of the civil-rights era, moving from town to town with his uncle George and his childhood friend Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), an itinerant freelance photographer, trying to make sure that they stay in Black-owned hotels and eat at Black-owned restaurants and get out of sundown towns before sundown, all in service of finding his missing dad, Montrose Freeman (the mesmerizing Michael Kenneth Williams, who has slowly but surely become television’s answer to Humphrey Bogart).

Without giving away too much of a show that prides itself on pulling the rug out from under viewers, suffice to say that while Lovecraft Country knows how to take care of narrative business, that’s not the only business it cares about. It gets the major players to where they need to be, in its own way and at its own pace, setting up and playing out plot twists as it doles out character development (particularly via Tic’s dreams and visions and his bantering interactions with Leti, which have a dash of Scully-Mulder tension). It has a sure enough grasp of pacing and tone that when it pivots from its road-trip structure and settles into a spooky old mansion in Ardham, Massachusetts (the town’s name is one letter different from Lovecraft’s Arkham); situates Tic, Leti, and George in a cult compound of sinister-gorgeous Aryan blonds known as Sons of Adam (with Tony Goldwyn as the glowering, self-satisfied patriarch, and Abbey Lee as his daughter, sounding board, and roving enforcer); and devotes the entire second episode to a Brechtian gloss on Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi classic Solaris (each inhabited bedroom projecting a different reality that draws on the guest’s anxieties and longings), it all feels like an organic extension of the series’s “What the hell, let’s try it!” philosophy rather than a collection of vainglorious indulgences. Each flourish is rooted in an established visual motif or thematic through line, whether it’s the multivalent idea of “monsters” or the way the characters’ thoughts are sometimes afflicted by discrimination, exclusion, and pressure to flatter the dominant culture’s self-image. George and Hippolyta’s young daughter Diana, played by Jada Harris, is a budding comic-book artist; her current work is about white characters, because in the 1950s, that’s who comics were about.

Lovecraft Country amounts to another present-tense correction of science fiction’s past of racism and exclusion. Its very existence answers the 1950s hero’s resigned description of nonwhite genre fans having to accept the good with the bad because they have no other choice. This is one of the only ironies that the series doesn’t boldface for us, in the tradition of Serling’s Zone, The Outer Limits, The X-Files, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, and another recent, racially and politically conscious upending of genre expectations, Watchmen. Like the latter shows — and the audaciously oblique third season of Twin Peaks, which raised the bar for all of narrative TV — Lovecraft Country is a play of ideas as well as a play. It uses distancing devices and deliberate anachronisms to provoke thought, not to be cute or random (though there are times when you can picture the filmmakers grinning at the realization that they’ve done something nobody could’ve expected). When the series travels with the heroes through segregated America, or follows Tic during a long walk through his working-class Black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side — giving us a long look at the type of expensive, breathtakingly detailed period set that more often contains white actors — modern music plays on the soundtrack, as if to hint that the situation we are seeing onscreen, in terms of both narrative and production, applies to the present as well. Tic’s subconscious contains visual language and pop-culture references that are impossible for a 1950s man to have as reference points — not just the use of a 1970s sitcom theme in a comedic fantasy, but the staging and editing of the violence, which hews to modern film language rather than to the period in which the story is set. Lovecraft Country even unveils its roaring, slobbering Lovecraftian beasties right out of the gate, in a trench-warfare nightmare foreshadowing the human monsters that will pop up during Tic’s odyssey.

At first it may seem as if Green & Co. play that hand too soon: The prelude is a showstopper before the show has started, and the creatures echo CGI demon spawn in Pacific Rim, Stranger Things, and other Lovecraft-inspired projects. But we eventually chalk it up to Tic being a special person — a kind of soothsayer or “seer” character, and perhaps also a surrogate for Green or Jordan Peele or the actors, who can see beyond the story’s present tense because they’re looking at it from a modern vantage point. This, too, is part of the series’s design. It’s impossible to watch episodes dealing with segregation, the white-supremacist attitudes and policies of certain rich Americans, and redlining practices in housing without thinking of their modern equivalents. We’re supposed to roam along the American timeline in this way; it’s the whole point of the storytellers giving themselves this freedom. The series is what academics would call a “rich text,” and one that the literal-minded would ding for being “unrealistic.” It footnotes itself as it goes, though rarely so ostentatiously that it denies viewers the pleasure of figuring out where certain influences came from and what the show is trying to say with them.

With each new episode, we gain more appreciation of the thought that’s been put into every aspect of Lovecraft Country’s production, including the cultural baggage that accompanies each reference — Lovecraft more than any other. The author was as notorious for his racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism as for his mastery of the language of dread. The series’s conceptual masterstroke is the way it links the monsters of Lovecraft’s fiction and the monsters inside the characters’ minds to the monsters of American history. They walk among us still, hiding in plain sight as they wait for another sunset.

*A version of this article appears in the August 17, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

In Lovecraft Country, Monsters Past and Present Converge