Lovecraft Country’s Pulpy Call Is One Even Cthulhu Couldn't Resist

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<i>Lovecraft Country</i>&#8217;s Pulpy Call Is One Even Cthulhu Couldn't Resist

Lovecraft Country, an adaptation of Matt Ruff’s book of the same name, belongs more in a series of Weird Tales issues than in the current understanding of H.P. Lovecraft’s tentacle-ridden boogiemen, non-Euclidean geometry, and otherwise unknowable Old Ones. It’s a true pulp story, collected by showrunner Misha Green (who also had writing or story credits on the five episodes I got to see) straight from the mill and bound with an exciting cast and setting to enrich its adventure. Savvy and sensational, you’ve never seen Lovecraft like this.

Ranging from Chicago’s South Side (the show was partially shot in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood) to the eerie East Coast where Lovecraft’s tales haunted their hapless sailors and professors, Lovecraft Country tracks the cruel magicks of legacy while pointing out at every turn that its genre’s legacy is steeped in racism. Just because Lovecraft was a racist dickhead on a cosmic scale doesn’t mean Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) doesn’t love his brand of fiction. Tic and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) kick off the series on a Jim Crow-defying quest to find Atticus’ missing father (Michael K. Williams)—who’s off in search of their family’s secretive and spooky “birthright”—accompanied by Tic’s childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollet).

That Chosen One formula with familiar notes—a call from the incredible to someone lodged in the mundane—is undermined from the opening scene. A bold sci-fi wartime nightmare demystifies cartoonish takes on violence by colorizing its black-and-white palette, while ironic narration from Alfred E. Green’s The Jackie Robinson Story introduces “an American boy and a dream that is truly American.” It’s effectively an Amazing Stories cover come to life, with the aliens, scantily-clad women, and outrageousness turned up to HBO levels. The monsters make Stranger Things look like a dollar-store lunchbox; the dramatic use of period setting should make Green Book’s Oscar ashamed to show its face.

From here, the fantastical relationship between escapism and the cruelty driving those to escape from reality only deepens. Voiceovers here aren’t scene-setting exposition—at least, not how we’re used to genre stories doing it. We’re not hearing the rules of a magical world from an old wizard, but hearing James Baldwin lay bare the rules of a nation that values a Grand Wizard. What Tic discovers lurking in a stately mansion (filled with a bunch of platinum blonde baddies running a secret society that Atticus just MIGHT be grandfathered into) could be a magical universe that exists just under the surface of his own, but it’s certainly not an exciting call to adventure. It’s trouble. Why? Because he’s Black, and Blackness doesn’t mix well with America’s entrenched systems—even if they’re magical ones.

This simple twist works to deconstruct the more conventional aspects of the series. That doesn’t mean the show lacks convention: there’s always water rising or bridges collapsing or demons seducing or heroes smooching. If a magazine from the ‘50s featured it on the cover, you can bet it’ll be bolder and Blacker in Lovecraft Country.

While lush with color (purples, yellows, pinks, and blues accentuate the late night lights of the midwest), Tat Radcliffe’s cinematography helps ground the series even through its goofiest moves—and that can mean literal camera swoops or reveals of unexpected genre elements. Less comicky in its compositions than something like Watchmen, which also brought allegorical fantasy to the African-American experience, Lovecraft Country is either high-octane flashy or pure pragmatism in its visuals. With a joyful amount of viscera and gore, these shocks to the system never failed to leave a Tom Savini-loving grin on my face. The Lovecraftian crutch phrase “sloughs off” has never been so tangible. Yuck.

All this helps with the pulpy tone, which hops from one “Next Time On…” cliffhanger/fakeout to the next. But its overarching storytelling bears the uneven drawbacks of its method. Some of that is formal. The sound mixing—at least in the versions of the episode I got to watch—was so heavy on the dramatic music and so low on the dialogue that even puzzle-solving, yelled conversations were incomprehensible. Some is narrative. Intimate moments can feel unearned simply because the relationships don’t build as well visually as the larger plotted setpieces, while the various mysteries flowing from the “missing father” headwater get polluted with so much debris that it can feel more like an occult anthology than a connected story.

Thankfully, the show is entertaining and gripping on a scene-by-scene level and its incredible array of performers (it’s a true ensemble piece) are at the top of their game, led by a soft and winning Majors. His breakout performance in The Last Black Man in San Francisco similarly showed off an actor skilled at dramatic metallurgy: a malleable, giving surface with a solid steel core. Some of that steel comes across physically, with Major’s jacked physique the center of the thirsty gaze of both Smollet’s Letitia and the camera. Not often do we get a bookworm hunk, let alone a Black one. The writers give him plenty to work with as someone who’s lovably naive, but also as someone with plenty of suppressed hurt and rage ready to time travel from his upbringing to his present-day fists.

Smollet, like Majors, runs the gamut in her role. She gets to do wounded and distant as well as staggered with existential fear, but when Letitia’s in her element, she exudes such power—all sexual energy and confident strut—that the show might as well have told everyone else to go home for the day. Nobody’d even notice if the rest of the scene was empty. Lovecraft’s other breakout is Wunmi Mosaku, who plays Letitia’s half-sister Ruby with a killer stare and an inescapable presence.

While Lovecraft Country’s plot moves fast, fast, fast—with head-spinningly quick consequences seemingly abandoned, only to manifest as high concept plots themselves—there’s so much good to hold onto that its pages turn themselves. Thanks to its perspective, the exploration of wild dreams and strange justifications of an unjust society, as well as the magical bounties residing in its oppressed corners, shines. Turns out lots of genre tropes become more interesting when the lead looks like someone other than Logan Lerman. Lovecraft Country does the work, whether through its in-universe interrogation of patriarchal systems inside of inherently racist structures, confrontation of closeted shame and the drag scene, or through utterly bomb needledrops. Each episode’s conceit is fascinating enough to deserve its own thinkpiece; each episode’s twist a shocking and gruesome delight. All I’m waiting on is whether its season-long storytelling coalesces in its back half. I’m not quite a gibbering convert to this show’s Cthulhu, but it’s certainly hard resisting its call.

Lovecraft Country premieres Sunday, August 16th on HBO.

Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.

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