In Misha Green’s fright-filled HBO drama Lovecraft Country, the things that go bump in the night are scary, but generationally entrenched human prejudices are the real monsters. Unless there also happen to be burrowing creatures with pointy teeth, insatiable appetites and tentacles. In that case, those are totally the real monsters, but systemic racism is also bad.
It’s pulp fiction by way of the 1619 Project, where America’s original sin might simultaneously be slavery and a ritual blood sacrifice with the potential to open up a portal to another dimension.
Lovecraft Country may not always be better than HBO’s Watchmen, another recent show that used popular genre forms as a way in to larger sociological debates, but it often makes Watchmen (or even executive producer Jordan Peele’s Get Out) look tentative by comparison. This is a show that hooks you fast — and one toward which it’s nearly impossible to be ambivalent.
Set in 1955, Green’s adaptation of Matt Ruff’s novel begins with a young soldier — Jonathan Majors’ Atticus — returning home to Chicago still psychologically scarred from his experiences in Korea. Following up on the disappearance of his estranged father (Michael Kenneth Williams), Atticus embarks on a road trip to a peculiar corner of New England not found on any map, but named to draw associations with the work of H.P. Lovecraft, the virulently racist author of the kind of pulpy novels Atticus adores.
“I love that the heroes get to go on adventures in other worlds, to fight insurmountable odds, defeat the monster, save the day,” Atticus says, noting how rarely Black narratives are taken up by the genre. That popular art is processed primarily (if not exclusively) through a white prism is always on the show’s mind.
Atticus is joined by his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), editor of a series of guides for Black travelers — think Green Book but then stop thinking of Green Book — and by Leti (Jurnee Smollett), a childhood friend who has grown into a firebrand herself, butting heads with her half-sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), a singer whose real aspiration is to break the color barrier behind the counter at Marshall Field’s.
Where Lovecraft Country goes from here is complicated to explain and I almost wouldn’t want to. Ruff’s novel is structured as a loosely connected anthology, where just when you think you understand what the “main” story is, the focal characters shift and the genre changes as well. So Atticus, George and Leti may be driving into the heart of a Lovecraft novella, albeit one where there are supernatural beasts and secret societies but also bigoted sheriffs and the ticking-clock threat of a “sundown town,” but you shouldn’t think that’s the plot or what the show is “about.” Subsequent episodes transition into a ghost story involving metaphors for urban segregation and white flight, and then into a cliffhanger-heavy adventure yarn that examines the colonialist roots of exploration in a way National Treasure or Goonies did not.
The series does a much better job than the novel of tying the disparate stories and genres together around the secret society, its nefarious mission and the enticing-but-unsettling figure of Christina (Abbey Lee), part of a multi-generational legacy of privilege manifested through magic. She has, in general, taken the novel and turned it into something richer, with director Yann Demange (White Boy Rick) setting the template in the super-size pilot and the production design yielding both wonderful ’50s detailing and quirky, lived-in interiors in which to house the eccentric ensemble of characters.
As she proved on WGN’s criminally under-appreciated Underground, Green is a master at making things that should be bleak and unpleasant seem incredibly fun and things that should be wild and escapist cut with a provocative edge; Lovecraft Country is a series that takes no half-measures when it comes to its mash-up of topicality and pop. When it’s a monster yarn, those monsters are aggressive and terrifying. When it’s a haunted house saga, the jump scares abound. It doesn’t always work perfectly, and the fourth episode, with its vintage movie serial pleasures, feels thematically thin. But it’s followed by a spectacularly berserk, grotesque and visceral fifth episode sure to spawn a year of think pieces.
That episode, directed by queer indie cinema icon Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman), is both a veritable grad school thesis on racial identity and the most expertly gross thing I’ve seen on TV in a long time. I’d describe that as the show’s sweet spot: More in-your-face progressive than the genre fans might expect and more in-your-face gory than the commentariat might expect.
It’s all carried along propulsively by a soundtrack that, like the playlist from Underground, mixes period-appropriate needle drops with modern bangers from Rihanna and Cardi B. An added wrinkle this time around is the use of spoken word audio, including a James Baldwin conversation and the intro to Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” either in place of or in addition to music. There’s also a use of a beloved sitcom theme that gave me the biggest of smiles.
None of this would work if the cast weren’t entirely on the same page as Green and her directors. The ensemble is led by Underground veteran Smollett in her latest “Why isn’t she the biggest star in the land?” performance, a fierce turn in which her every bit of actorly business — whether driving a car, sprinting away from ghouls or wielding a baseball bat as a weapon — feels instantly iconic. You can’t take your eyes off her.
It’s to everybody else’s credit that Smollett doesn’t knock them off the screen entirely, but Majors (Da 5 Bloods) is a steady, slow-burning leading man and Vance and Williams add embraceable decency and fiery torment respectively. Mosaku is especially good in that show-stopping fifth episode, while Lee, Tony Goldwyn and Aunjanue Ellis (as Atticus’ Aunt Hippolyta, whose key story from the book comes after the five episodes sent to critics) make strong impressions as well.
A celebration of and corrective to the legacy of the pulpiest of pulp fiction, Lovecraft Country is proudly comfort-resistant, zagging abruptly any time you think you’re sure where it’s zigging and forcing viewers to interrupt their entertainment for regular confrontations with a past that’s never too far in the past and nightmares that are hard to relegate to the realm of fiction. Lovecraft Country is bananas.
Cast: Jurnee Smollett, Jonathan Majors, Aunjanue Ellis, Abbey Lee, Jada Harris, Wunmi Mosaku, Michael Kenneth Williams
Creator: Misha Green from the novel by Matt Ruff
Airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, premiering August 16.