When I read Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country back in 2016, I remember liking it well enough, but also thinking the book might’ve worked better as a television series. The narrative was good overall, but also felt purposefully episodic, which in turn made it feel noticeably disjointed. Combine that with all the incredible visuals (along with my wishful thinking), and it was easy to envision this story taking place onscreen.
Turns out Ruff tried unsuccessfully to pitch Lovecraft Country as a TV show before turning it into a novel.
With the book now having been adapted into a series for HBO, I was interested/excited to see how it would translate on screen. After watching the first five episodes, it appears Ruff’s original story idea might very well have been better suited for television all along. Thanks to showrunner/writer Misha Green‘s exceptional work and a phenomenal cast, Lovecraft Country provides a visceral and thrilling viewing experience, all while being unlike anything else on TV.
There are a few places it stumbles a bit, but that’s primarily due to the show’s willingness to take risks. Far more often than not, however, it’s great…and sometimes brilliant.
For this review, I’ll be speaking generally about the first half of the 10-episode series as opposed to an episode-by-episode recap, which will be posted after each one airs starting this Sunday. I’ll try to remain as vague as possible with regards to spoilers, although if you want to go in completely blind, then just trust me that the show is good and turn back now.
The official synopsis from HBO reads:
The one-hour drama series based on the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff, follows Atticus Black as he joins his friend Letitia and his Uncle George to embark on a road trip across 1950s Jim Crow America in search of his missing father. What follows is a struggle to survive and overcome both the racist terrors of white America and the terrifying monsters that could be ripped from an H.P. Lovecraft paperback.
While the road trip part is definitely true for the first two episodes, the narrative takes some massive twists and turns from there. The specter of Jim Crow era racism, however, is an ever-present force (along with some really cool monsters).
I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say that Lovecraft Country also has an overarching story that involves a secret society and the many encounters/adventures surrounding its machinations. This particular plot device is seamlessly woven into the fabric of America’s fraught history with racism, putting our heroes in danger from a cosmic-level to the very streets they live on.
And don’t worry–this isn’t the heavy handed, eye roll inducing metaphorical writing that we see in a lot of horror media these days (like how every zombie desperately needs to show us that Humans are the Real Monsters). Green knows exactly when to keep things subtle or push the pedal to the floor, deftly constructing a great tale that also has something important to say to its audience.
What Works (so far)
Seriously…I cannot stress just how incredible this cast is.
Everyone knows the level of exceptional talent that Michael K. Williams (aka Omar from The Wire) brings to any project, but he’s absolutely at the top of his game here. Williams imbues the character of Monstrose Freeman with a hard edge mixed with a striking amount of vulnerability.
Jurnee Smollett owns the screen every time she’s on it. Yes, she’s all types of beautiful, but Smollett also gives Letitia “Leti” Lewis a presence and pathos you can’t help but be drawn to. Her vulnerability is counterbalanced with a strength that’s fueled by unyielding courage, determination, and idealism. Even when her heart’s broken or she’s scared out of her mind, there’s never any doubt that Leti will rise to the terrifying challenges before her.
Oh, and she can sing like you wouldn’t believe.
On the subject of singing, Wunmi Mosaku gets to show off her musical skills as Ruby Baptiste and does not disappoint. She’s so good, in fact, that I’ll gladly buy an album of her work if she ever decides to record one. As far as Ruby the character is concerned, it took me a bit to warm up to her. When she finally gets the bulk of an episode to play out a major storyline, however, it became impossible not to root for her.
I felt similarly about Aunjanue Ellis as Hippolyta Freeman, but on a different scale. She starts off by immediately grabbing your heart before fading into a state of subdued (and very justified) pain. Hippolyta had just begun turning back to the character I’d been hoping to see during her last appearance in the series’ first half. Hopefully that trend continues.
And then you have Hippolyta’s on screen husband George Freeman, a character I barely remember from the book who became one of my favorites thanks to the work of George B. Vance. On an individual level, his acting is superb, but it’s the chemistry he has with every character George is on screen with that really shines. I’ve been a fan of Vance’s since his FlashForward days (yes I’m still mad that show was canceled) and loved him (along with everyone else) as Johnnie Cochrane in The People vs. O.J. Simpson. This role might be my favorite of his. My only complaint is that we don’t get to see nearly enough of him.
Jada Harris also feels underutilized as the young Diana Freeman, but makes every moment you see her count. Her brief amount of screen time provides a badly needed perspective on the the insane events happening in the adult world around her.
Christina Braithwhite all but screams “VILLAIN” when you first see her, but Abbey Lee does a fantastic job molding and expanding the complicated character Misha Green crafted for her. She’s definitely evil, but is uncomfortably good at justifying her actions–particularly the way she tries to put herself on the same side as those being hurt and oppressed far worse than she ever has.
The real revelation in this series, however, is Jonathan Majors as Atticus Freeman.
This is the first thing I’ve seen Majors in, but the young actor carries the main character role like he’s been doing it for decades. He’s effortlessly magnetic, heroic, and likeable, all while showing his flaws and vulnerability in a way that makes you feel even more drawn to his character.
In a show like this one, the supporting characters can become so interesting that the main protagonist appears bland or static by comparison. This won’t be an issue with Majors.
It’s also worth noting how well this entire cast works together. I already mentioned George B. Vance’s chemistry with everyone, but this truly is one of the most cohesive ensembles I’ve ever seen, especially for a new series.
If you saw Lovecraft Country‘s SDCC virtual panel, then you likely had a sense of this, but it really shines through in the casts’ work on screen. Even when two characters are at each other’s throats, the actors’ mesh so well that it’s wonderfully possible to get lost in the scene as viewer.
Even if you’re familiar with Lovecraftian lore, this series is going to take you on a wild ride. Thankfully, Mischa Green does a (mostly) great job streamlining the narrative into a cohesive tale.
Even for the most jaded viewer, the parallels between the cosmic/supernatural and racist horrors the characters face are striking. It also provides a lens into the daily lives of black communities during the Jim Crow era that is often overshadowed by large historical moments and whitewashed history. These aren’t soldiers on the front lines of Civil Rights movement we read about in sanitized textbooks. They’re the everyday people forced to live and adjust their lives to the ugly/unjust parameters surrounding them.
Add in some monsters and ghosts along with an ancient supernatural order, and you’ve got the framework for quite the harrowing story.
I’d also like to note that Lovecraft Country doesn’t take a “dumbed down” or monolithic view of racism, either. While we definitely see characters who are unapologetically hateful toward anyone who isn’t white, some try (to varying degrees) to ignore or hide their racist leanings. Others see themselves as good/accepting toward people of color, all while being completely unaware of the prejudice behind their words and actions.
It’s frustrating, tragically accurate, and makes for much more interesting/complicated antagonists.
Even if you took out all the great story and cast work, Lovecraft Country would still be one of the most beautifully shot shows on television. The sets, camerawork, and cinematography are all on par or better than most big budget Hollywood productions. There’s one particular shot in the third episode that’s one of my favorite television scenes of the entire year (you’ll definitely know it when you see it).
Even the stuff that is supposed to be “ugly” looks great, particularly the practical monster and gore effects. That being said, most of the CGI is outstanding. There were a few times it felt as though the show extended past its budget a bit, but those moments are counter balanced by ones where what your seeing on screen is truly breath-taking…
…or completely scares the hell out of you.
I wasn’t kidding when I said I would totally buy an album of Wunmi Mosaku singing the blues. Both she and Smollett are incredible actresses, but their talent as performers never comes off a secondary skill. They truly are phenomenal.
As far as the show itself is concerned, Lovecraft Country‘s musical score is a delicious mixture of atmospheric chords and bombastic, pulpy bursts. I know that sounds a bit weird on paper, but trust me when I say it works perfectly. There’s also a good mix of modern music that fits in a way that doesn’t take you out of the series’ timeframe.
What Doesn’t Work (so far)
Despite Ruff’s original story translating better to screen, the narrative’s disjointed feeling didn’t completely go away. While the story eventually began to coalesce into a cohesive tale, it still gave me a bit of whiplash jumping from one insane journey/adventure to the next. There were times these chapters felt so entirely separate that I initially wondered if I was watching an alternate timeline or perspective until the previous events were finally referenced.
While none of Lovecraft Country’s plot lines are ever bad or uninteresting, a few are outshined by others to a jarring degree.
Not Gone and Never Forgotten
One of the things that made me lukewarm about Ruff’s novel was the fact that I could barely remember the characters as the story progressed. In Mischa Green’s version of Lovecraft Country, however, we have the exact opposite problem.
Even with limited screen time, Green makes sure you know and love every single one of the main characters in this story. She does such a good job, in fact, that it’s all types of distracting/frustrating when they disappear for long stretches of time. In one case, she does exponentially more with one character than was ever done in the novel only to re-minimize their role after making the audience (or me at least) desperately want to see more of them.
I guess this would qualify as a “good” problem since it’s born out of great writing and character development, but it was still an issue.
Stretching Beyond the Void
If you’re one of those people who is tired of most television shows assuming their audience is dumb, then you’ll be very happy to know that Lovecraft Country has no intention of letting you watch with one eye on your phone and half your brain somewhere else. It demands you to be engaged at all times.
Unfortunately, it also takes some heady risks that occasionally slow, stall, or confuse the overall narrative.
Don’t get me wrong–I’d much rather have shows do this than try and recreate another painful season of The Big Bang Theory. But while most of Lovecraft Country‘s narrative risks pay off splendidly, some do fall flat.
The same can be said of the show’s VFX. In addition to the outstanding practical effects work, most of the CGI is so good that there’s absolutely no need for a “good for TV” qualifier. Unfortunately, a few of the shots do fall into that category. None of it is bad, mind you, but the difference between the show’s many brilliant and few average VFX moments is noticeable.
If you’ve been looking for something different to watch–or just a great series that’s both substantial and entertaining–then you’re probably going to love Lovecraft Country. To put it another way: If you were to compare consuming television and food, then watching this series would be like eating a well-seasoned steak compared to the army of microwave meals that cover most of our viewing choices.
If you’re not a fan of Lovecraft’s mythos, the story, acting, and visceral thrills are more than enough to capture your attention and make you put your phone down. Even with the bumps along the way, it’s by far one of the most unique and engaging shows on television.
Lovecraft Country premieres Sunday, August 16 at 9:00 pm EDT on HBO. We’ll see you back here that same night with our full recap/review of the first episode.
Check out our review of Lovecraft Country’s first episode here.
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