Note: This review is based only on the first five episodes of the series
2019 gave us one of the most compelling TV series of the past few years as Watchmen offered up a faithful sequel to the original comic book series that redefined the potential of the medium during the height of Cold War paranoia. Watchmen did this by transplanting its superhero source material into a world affected by real issues, shining a light on the significant prejudices and injustices of our current era. And in Lovecraft Country, we get our latest TV obsession that also layers in the fantastical alongside the historical.
With a story as much about the monsters around us as the ones who go bump in the night, showrunner/executive producer Misha Green and producers Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams, delve deep into this theme of racism, going back to its roots and adding horrific Lovecraftian lore to 1950s America. This was a time of volatile racial tensions, and sadly its depiction highlights just how little has changed over the years.
Based on the 2016 novel of the same name by Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country follows the story of Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a book smart African-American veteran, recently returned to the US after fighting in the Korean War, who joins up with his free-spirit friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), a book publisher writing a “safe travel guide for negroes”. The trio embarks on a cross-country road trip at the height of the controversial Jim Crow legislation in search of Atticus’ missing father (Michael K. Williams), whose only clue to his whereabouts is a mysterious note referring to a town that doesn’t appear on any map. This journey kicks off a struggle against all manner of grotesquery, as the characters end up crossing paths with the overt racism of white supremacists right alongside the terrifying monsters born from the pages of HP Lovecraft’s novels.
Lovecraft Country has ambitious plans, as it looks to tackle themes that are deeply serious, while also digging deep into the world of the supernatural. Does it live up to all the hype?
Well, for the most part, it certainly does.
For fans of horror and HP Lovecraft, they’ll be happy to know that the elements of the otherworldly play a large part in this series and are realized superbly on screen. But these creatures from beyond are very much secondary to the nature of the characters and the more human monsters that they face. Lovecraft Country doesn’t try and explain too much lore around many of the tentacled, multi-eyed, razor-jawed nightmare fiends throughout, nor do they represent a bigger threat than the political turmoil’s the characters face. There are stomach-churning scares and ghastly frights to be had at the expense of these nasties for sure, but this is very much a story about its characters and their journeys of discovery through the different events of the time.
This shouldn’t deter you though if you’ve only come for supernatural thrills, because Lovecraft Country’s storytelling is exceptional. It’s best bits are easily its strong characters and the world it builds around them. Even without fantastical monsters on-screen, they keep you riveted to your seat. The series does a good job of keeping most of its focus around its core leads, which means you get to care about them and their relationships. The result is that the tension and drama are exceptionally executed, and it even touches your heartstrings without being overly preachy or political in the viewpoint it leads you down.
I will say though that the story, as compelling as it is, does take a while to really get into its stride. This is by design as the series uses its pilot episode to lay the platform for its characters and help you to understand them a bit more. Once it picks up the pace though, the series does enough to keep you hooked. Credit must go to the core actors (Majors, Smollett, Vance) who really take us deep into the psyche and experiences of their characters, which are well written by Green, whose penmanship covers all ten of the season’s episodes. The production designs of the time period that they exist in, is also flawless. The set design, characters, and costumes are all fantastically done, as is the cinematography which all makes you connect with the era. It’s a series all about immersion and it certainly does that right.
Another big aspect of the series is its episodic structure. After the first few chapters set the tone by following the structure and narrative of the original book, the later episodes (at least the ones I got to watch) largely follow a different underlying monster story that revolves around the broader narrative. That is not to say that the connectedness of the characters overarching stories are not engaging enough. What it does do though is keep the scares fresh as new demons and monsters take centre stage, throwing a wide variety of supernatural terrors at viewers. It also allows each episode to explore its own mini-themes and arcs, even though there is still a strong story thread throughout.
Another big aspect of this series is music, with the producers using contemporary tracks of the time to help bring some of the characters to life. It’s a subtle, but masterful aspect of storytelling that can easily go unnoticed, but if you pay attention to the music and what it means, it adds an additional layer to the storytelling and understanding of the characters.
If there was one any criticism I could throw at this show – and bear in mind that this criticism could possibly be resolved in later episodes that I hadn’t seen yet – its that a lot of the supernatural elements can be a little chaotic. Things introduced early are not well explained, the various religious and occultic rituals are a little over the top, and the characters seem to accept them with too much ease. This is a minor complaint though and as mentioned it is entirely possible the series will resolve these plot threads later.
Lovecraft Country is a series that brings together the best pieces of horror and powerful dramatic storytelling. It’s both shockingly fresh and painfully familiar at the same time and very well crafted. With its blend of genres, superb writing and performances, and overall sterling production values, HBO has another winner on its hands and it’s likely we are going to hearing a whole lot more about this series as it rolls out new episodes each week.
Lovecraft Country can be viewed weekly on DStv’s 1Magic channel with the first four episodes arriving on Showmax on September 8th, the next four on October 6th and the final two on October 20th.
Last Updated: August 21, 2020