HBO’s horror drama “Lovecraft Country” arrives at an opportune moment in American culture, with big, scary metaphors about the monster of bigotry — but these days, what show worth watching isn’t somehow on-topic?
That said, not every player in this arena is going to triumph just by showing up. In “Lovecraft Country” (premiering Sunday), producer, writer and showrunner Misha Green (“Underworld”) delivers a series that is urgent, sufficiently gruesome and, where it matters most, boldly willing to assert control over a literary fantasy realm first envisioned by a long dead and demonstrably problematic creator. (That would be H.P. Lovecraft, a New England-born writer whose cosmic horror stories gained popularity after his death in 1937 but who is also remembered for his racist and anti-Semitic views.)
In addition to everything else the show aims to achieve, “Lovecraft Country,” based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel, reclaims some important territory in the name of Black nerds everywhere, filled as it is with characters who become immersed in a complicated and often difficult to follow Lovecraftian cosmology of creatures, secret societies, wizardry, spellcraft, weird science, confounding encryptions and other mysteries contained in old maps, passageways, relics and lost languages. Relying on their brains as much as their resiliency, these heroes confront evil most often on an intellectual level — whether it’s a galloping goo-monster with tentacles and teeth, or a sneering pack of White teenage boys who don’t want Black people living in their neighborhood.
Fusing Lovecraft’s jibber-jabber onto a more compelling parallel story of Black lives mattering in the Jim Crow era (circa 1955) may be ingenious, but it doesn’t always succeed. The show gets a little too busy, too soon.
In the first five episodes made available for this review (there are 10 episodes in all), “Lovecraft Country” feels like two competing shows — a basic-cable phantasmagoria for the geeks and a civil rights drama for everyone else. The shifts in tone lack the seamlessness seen in last year’s “Watchmen,” which achieved a similar blend of commentary and comic book. Given “Lovecraft Country’s” visceral predilections and panting pace, the better comparison here might be “True Blood,” a vampire melodrama that did double duty as a coming-out story.
Still, there is plenty to recommend here, especially for those seeking something unique as this summer’s schedule breathes its last. “Lovecraft Country” is visually striking and inventively imagined, even when it gets corny.
There are some sizzling moments and scenes, such as when one Black character acquires a useful ability to morph into a White person, involving a bloody process in which one body claws its way out of the other.
This builds on a growing movement in today’s horror tales, in which those old metaphors of Red Menace invasions and psychotic maniacs have moved over for more pressing analogies to racism. Jordan Peele, who is one of “Lovecraft Country’s” producers (as is J.J. Abrams, whose fingers continue to show up in many pies), deftly presented this thesis in his movies “Get Out” and “Us,” where Black protagonists must fight for their lives against White tormentors who have sinister plans for Black bodies.
A similar principle is threaded through “Lovecraft Country,” which opens with its hero, an Army veteran named Atticus (Jonathan Majors), who goes by “Tic,” riding in the segregated back of a Chicago-bound bus while reading one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s sci-fi fantasy novels about John Carter, a Confederate soldier who travels to Mars and fights in a war. A fellow traveler expresses her disapproval when she learns that Tic is reading a novel in which the hero fought for the Confederacy.
“Stories are like people,” Tic explains, and while reading them “you just try to cherish them and overlook their flaws.” The line serves as a kind of permission to step back into Lovecraft’s world, faults and all, as Tic begins to hunt for his missing father, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams), who has disappeared in the woods of Massachusetts, on the trail of a revealing secret about the family’s lineage.
Tic’s uncle, George (Courtney B. Vance), is the author of the annual “Safe Negro Travel Guide,” a guidebook for Black travelers. The two set off from Chicago for Massachusetts in George’s car, accompanied by Leti (Jurnee Smollett), a restless photographer and childhood friend of Tic’s. Their journey across the Midwest and Northeast is fraught with dirty looks and outright danger, culminating in a run-in with a particularly nasty sheriff and his deputies.
The trio’s search for Montrose winds up in the spooky, many-roomed mansion of Samuel Braithwhite (Tony Goldwyn), the grand poo-bah of a secret fraternal order called the Sons of Adam, who has designs on Tic’s bloodline, which, under the right ceremonial conditions, holds the key to . . . well, unless you’re a huge fan of this kind of thing, it’s probably best to just let the CGI effects play out.
When the gang returns to Chicago — pursued by Braithwhite’s witchy daughter, Christina (Abbey Lee) — the show finds a more coherent and entertaining balance between spectacle and storytelling. There are haunted houses and other ghoulish delights, but the characters at least take a moment to develop, giving the show’s strong cast (including Aunjanue Ellis as George’s wife, Hippolyta; and Wunmi Mosaku as Leti’s half sister, Ruby) a chance to do more than recoil in fright.
As with “Underground,” Green’s style mixes old and new. The soundtrack ranges from fresh takes on the R&B music that informed ’50s rock-and-roll to more recent selections of hip-hop; the sound of James Baldwin’s famous 1965 debate with William F. Buckley Jr. plays across the lonely highway miles; in a later episode, the show makes elegant use of Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 spoken-word classic “Whitey on the Moon.”
If nothing else, it’s proof that anachronism is a useful tool, particularly where history has been a stubborn beast.
Lovecraft Country (70 minutes) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.