Based on the 2016 dark fantasy novel by Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country deals with the struggle of a black family in 1950s Chicago. The series juxtaposes supernatural terror with the even scarier racial inequalities of Jim Crow-era America, with the moral of the story being that humans are the real monsters. The story follows the structure of the book, which is a series of inter-related short stories, but while showrunner Misha Green (Sons of Anarchy) preserves much of the themes and narrative, she makes some stark changes.
Atticus (Jonathan Majors) returns to Chicago after a stint overseas in the Korean War to go look for his missing father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams), with the help of his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and his friend Leti (Jurnee Smollett). During their road trip to Massachusetts, they’re met with racist locals trying to run them out of town, vicious Lovecraftian monsters, and their creepy ancestral home. Lovecraft Country isn’t really a show about spooky monsters, although there are some impressive VFX and scares (almost guaranteed with J.J Abrams as an executive producer), but it’s about the true horror of people (undoubtedly the influence of Get Out’s Jordan Peele as a producer.)
As they embark on their journey through the midwestern heartlands, they avoid mocking by people too young to understand how harmful their words are, and they drive past a billboard using ‘mammy’ imagery to advertise pancakes. In this world, racism is inescapable. The group having to escape a sundown town makes for a breathless opening episode, with every shot layered with textural meaning, elevating it above most other shows of the genre.
By only the second episode, most of the interesting plot threads have been resolved. Those looking for a supernatural caper with a socio-political conscience have already seen the show’s best scenes. The instalments to come, while filled with compelling plots and wonderful performances, are seemingly random and at times so off-kilter it’s hard to keep up with what’s happening.
Over the 10 episodes, we get often disconnected stories involving shapeshifters, evil spirits, aliens, time-travel, and ancient curses. It covers Korean, Western, and Native American mythology, but fails to truly integrate it into the core story of a black family dealing with personal trauma. It often feels like you’ve missed an episode as many strange ideas are presented to the audience without context, and too many plot threads are thrown to the side and never spoken about again.
The main narrative arc isn’t strong enough to carry the constant deviations and distractions. When the show does concentrate on its main plot, it weakly centres around our leads finding that episode’s MacGuffin, which usually leads to them having to find another magical object the week after.
Lovecraft Country’s commitment to blending its magical realism and historical fiction is also hit and miss. Stories like the death of Emmett Till and the Tulsa Massacre deserve more than to be retold in a supernatural horror show. History’s moulded to their plot, and not with the sensitivity deserved. The scene where a rich woman appears to hire a group of men to recreate the drowning of Emmet Till, just so she can feel something, really misses the mark. Lovecraft Country addresses topics that’ve been brushed under the carpet in America. The writers are unflinching in their stories of housing segregation, sundown towns, and social passing… but mixing them with body-horror, time travel, and ghost stories minimises their impact.
There are scenes that are shocking, bonkers, and genuinely creeping, but while visually engaging most are pointless and never mentioned again. There are just too many such throwaway scenes, which only distract viewer from the stuff that actually matters.
Lovecraft Country is at its best when it’s portraying extremes. It uncomfortably depicts the truth of the black experience in the US, going places most shows would be too scared to approach. The pilot promises an intertwining of Lovecraftian demons and demons of the Jim Crow era (especially poignant when considering Lovecraft’s own unabashed racism), but the rest of the show can’t match the ideas presented in the premiere.
The characterisation of the leads does help centre the often-bonkers action. Atticus (or Tic) is a booksmart pulp fiction read who struggles to manage his emotions; Montrose is a volatile product of his upbringing; while Uncle George is centred if not unsatisfied with his mundane family life. They each represent different versions of black masculinity, all delivered with softness by the actors.
The women also challenge black femininity. They aren’t passive housewives, they’re reckless and opinionated. The women here can hold their own even when in distress, so are never damsels in need of rescue. Leti is feral and strong, but also regal and romantic. Her sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) equally holds her own, determined to break through the barrier set by a racist society. Some of the most interesting plot points revolve around women and their attempt to break through the white glass ceiling.
There are so many glimmers of promise throughout this ten-part season. Ji-Ah’s (Jamie Chung) turn as Tic’s Korean lover is a wasted character, as she gives a stunning performance in one of the show’s most memorable stories, but it ends up being a throwaway episode. Any character development is lost when she falls in love with Atticus, a man who shot many of her colleagues. There’s so much to be said for American imperialism during the Korean War, yet any hint of it has been ignored in favour of demeaning her as a love interest.
Lovecraft Country is ultimately a collection of smart and relevant ideas scattered across a collection of strange episodes. Unsure if it’s a series with an overarching plot or an anthology using the same cast, it becomes too messy and chaotic for its intentions to land properly. And, sadly, the finale is by far the weakest episode, as it showcases the case but eliminates any of the emotional burdens their characters have been carrying throughout the previous episodes. You’ll walk away from a smart and courageous show with a deflated feeling, as it feels like every second you paid attention for was wasted on a Final Boss battle.
Mischa Green shot for the moon with Lovecraft Country, and while she often misses there is a lot of quality here. Should the show get a second season, this cast and writers have so much more to give, even if they have to now explore material without a source. Some will appreciate that no time is spent making sure audiences understand it, as viewers are trusted with the material and expected to follow every twist and turn. Others will spend more time trying to understand what’s happening than enjoying the nuance. So prepare yourself, as Lovecraft Country is a wild ride, whether the final result is rewarding for you or not.
USA | 2020 | 605 MINUTES • 10 EPISODES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Blu-ray Special Features:
The bonus material should definitely only be watched after you’ve finished the show as most of the features contain big spoilers. But considering the complexity of the show, these extras are a little on the thin side. There are no episode commentaries and nothing about the set or costume design, making the extras feel short and a hollow.
- Compendium of Horrors: A feature which talks about Matt Ruff’s novel, its connection to H.P Lovecraft’s work and the origins of the creatures that appear on the show.
- Orithyia Blue and the Imagination of Diana Freeman: Members of the cast and crew discuss how the show uniquely embraced science-fiction and fantasy, as well as how the characters embraced the genres.
- Crafting Lovecraft Country: A half-hour feature on how the show came together and how Matt Ruff feels about the changes made from the source material.
- Exploring Lovecraft Country: Eight short featurettes on the cast.
- Lovecraft Country The Craft: A featurette about the many skilled people behind-the-scenes whose hard work brought this show to life.
Cast & Crew
writers: Misha Green, Wes Taylor, Jonathan I. Kidd, Sonya Winton-Odamtten, Kevin Lau, Shannon Houston & Ihuoma Ofordire.
directors: Yann Demange, Daniel Sackheim, Victoria Mahoney, Cheryl Dunye, Helen Shaver, Charlotte Sieling, Misha Green, Jeffrey Nachmanoff & Nelson McCormick.
starring: Jurnee Smollett, Jonathan Majors, Aunjanue Ellis, Courtney B. Vance, Wunmi Mosaku, Abbey Lee, Jamie Chung, Jada Harris & Michael K. Williams.