Lovecraft Country

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Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in Lovecraft Country.
Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in Lovecraft Country.
Photo: Showmax

OUR RATING

4/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT

A young veteran who has just recently returned from a tour of duty in the Korean War is joined by his uncle and a childhood friend/potential love interest on a quest into the racist depths of "Lovecraft Country" in the American South – so named for the many stories set in these parts by acclaimed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft – to find his missing father. What they find, however, is a greater connection to his long-dead mother and her mysterious family lineage.

WHAT WE THOUGHT

Though Lovecraft Country is based on the 2016 book of the same name by Matt Ruff and was developed for the screen and showrun by Misha Green, the easiest way to understand what you're getting into is to note the very interesting combination of two of its more famous executive producers, JJ Abrams and Jordan Peele. With its mixture of social commentary, race issues, horror, fantasy and Spielbergian adventure, it really does feel like the deliciously pulpy offspring of their distinct but surprisingly compatible creative visions. Though that's only really scratching the surface of this wildly enjoyable and original genre mash-up.

Actually, though, and with all due respect to Abrams, Peele, Green and Ruff, as a teenager of the 1990s, the first thing that came to mind during the first episode was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was a comparison that I wasn't expecting at all but is one that has only grown as the four episodes currently available to view have progressed.

For all that the show deals with race, for example, it doesn't have the usual scathing satire of a Jordan Peele project, and so far it has a lot less to say about America's racist past (and present) than Damon Lindeloff's brilliant Watchmen. The way it uses actual monsters as visual metaphors for racial issues is rather more similar to the way Joss Whedon used actual monsters as visual metaphors for teenage issues in Buffy. Further recalling Whedon's masterpiece, Lovecraft Country has so far consisted of standalone episodes that form a greater arc in a way that I haven't seen done on prestige television since the Slayer saved the world one last time in the early 2000s. And, like Buffy, it also includes a potent mixture of b-movie fantasy thrills with more profound human drama and snappy dialogue.

Admittedly, the budget of Lovecraft Country makes even the most expensive seasons of Buffy look like home movies in comparison and, it being an HBO show, it is far more gruesomely violent, sweary and sexually explicit than Buffy even at its most transgressive. Still, even if I have no issues highly recommending it to anyone with a taste for the outlandish, I cannot recommend it enough to those who, like yours truly, consider Buffy: The Vampire Slayer one of the greatest shows to ever grace the small screen.

At the risk of further disrespecting Misha Green who is, after all, the actual creative vision behind this terrific series, it's impossible not to bring up one further obvious influence on the show – probably the biggest of all, in fact. H.P. Lovecraft should be a name very familiar to anyone who enjoys dark fantasy and/or horror as he basically wrote the book on these genres back at the beginning of the 20th century. The term "Lovecraftian" has almost become a cliché at this point in genre fiction with his most famous creation, Cthulhu, casting an especially prevalent shadow over the genre for the past century.

Crucially, though, Lovecraft was both a spectacular writer and a deeply flawed human being with unabashedly racist, misogynist and antisemitic views that were extreme even in his day. It's something that pretty much all genre fans have to come to terms with at some point or another so influential is his work – and deservedly so. In many respects, this is precisely what Lovecraft Country is all about, especially in its first two episodes. And to give Green the benefit of the doubt, the decision in the third episode to turn a malevolent ghostly presence Jewish in a way that many have called out for perpetuating one of the worst antisemitic tropes in history – that of the so-called "blood libel" – was presumably as much about Lovecraft's antisemitism as most of the rest of the series is about Lovecraft's racism.

Everything else about Misha Green's vision just seems far too on-point for so gigantic a guffaw to get through, especially with so many Jews and those of Jewish descent involved with the show (Abrams, Jurnee Smollett). So far I've only seen four episodes so it may well careen out of control in the future but, as it stands, Lovecraft Country has barely put a foot wrong. Green has managed to take all those major influences and woven them into a show that is perfectly acted by a superb cast (with Smollett as the clear standout), gorgeously shot and exceptionally well put together. Plus, for all that it deals with some serious issues, it's an almost obscene amount of fun.

And I just adore the variety.

Take a look at the first four episodes. The pilot is basically a cabin in the woods story (again, try and deny the Whedon influence here) suffused with much more terrifying racism and loads of squishy gore and would set the tone of the show perfectly, if not for Green's pesky insistence on having the show constantly side-stepping anything as predictable as tonal expectations. The second episode, already, continues the story from episode one but nimbly switches gear into a story about a weird cult that draws most heavily from Lovecraft... and the Bible! And, just as you're getting used to the horror trappings of the series with a classic haunted house tale in episode three, it shifts gear into Indiana Jones territory in episode four, complete with a John-Williams-like score, quippy romantic banter and deathly puzzles.

What is consistent throughout, though, is the sheer quality of the storytelling from episode to episode. It's much harder than it looks to make something serialised and standalone simultaneously but Green and co. have succeeded in a way that really does recall Joss Whedon at his best. There's also just so much to take in on an experiential level in each episode. From its sumptuous colour pallet to its cinematic sweep to its no less cinematic score, it's a real treat for the eyes and ears. Well, almost.

Probably my biggest beef with the show is its soundtrack. Not the score itself by Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq, which is fab, but the choice of songs. I get that the show is specifically trying to use the rich tradition of African-American music as a soundtrack for its story, but every single time I hear a hip-hop or modern R&B needle drop in this 1950s setting, I get yanked hard out of the show. Every. Single. Bloody. Time.

Look, it's true, I don't understand modern R&B and hip-hop so it might just be that I'm annoyed that I'm stuck listening to it rather than the truly spectacular black music of the 1950s but, objectively, it's so anachronistic that even those who prefer Kendrick or Beyoncé to Sam or Ella must surely find it distracting. Especially because about two-thirds of the time, the show actually does make heavy use of the classic gospel, rhythm and blues, and jazz of the 50s. It's such a weird decision on a series that does almost everything right and is one of the few things keeping me from rating it even higher.

It is close, though, because right alongside Lovecraft Country's technical excellence, its deft plotting and welcome humour, it also excels at that all-important characterisation. Jonathan Majors is great as our hero, Atticus "Tic" Freeman, and though it would be tempting to just minimise his character as a nerds brain in a jock's body, the addition of his being haunted by something that happened in Korea gives him extra depth. Honestly, though, despite a very, very strong cast that includes the always great Michael Kenneth Williams, Jurnee Smollett's Letitia "Leti" Lewis owns this series from the minute she steps on screen.

This is seriously addictive stuff, clearly, but I'm glad that HBO and Showmax haven't released the whole thing all at once – albeit on rather different schedules: weekly for HBO, in three batches for Showmax. Not only do you get to savour the standalone nature of each episode while getting to know these terrifically written characters, each episode actually feels like a water-cooler event in a way that we haven't seen since Game of Thrones pissed off the entire world with its final season.

We're only four episodes in but if Lovecraft Country stays this good, it should go down as a genre classic.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:


WATCH IT NOW ON SHOWMAX

Watch episodes 1 to 4 of Lovecraft Country on Showmax now, with episodes 5 to 8 coming 6 October and episodes 9 and 10 coming 20 October 2020, just after the US finale.

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