First look UK TV review: Lovecraft Country
Ivan Radford | On 17, Aug 2020
Lovecraft Country airs at 9pm on Mondays on Sky Atlantic, with episodes also simulcast weekly at 2am. This review is based on the opening episode.
“Stories are like people – loving them doesn’t make them perfect.” That’s how Lovecraft Country begins, with a direct acknowledgement of the problematic nature of its namesake: HP Lovecraft, a sci-fi/horror legend whose gothic imagination was only outshone by his horribly racist views. Tellingly based on Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name, rather than Lovecraft’s work directly, HBO’s new series is a riposte to the author’s influence, both in terms of genre and more insidious social prejudice.
Where Lovecraft’s horror was tinged with his bigotry, Lovecraft Country’s horror is rooted in the repulsiveness of that bigotry itself; the monsters here are the sneering sheriffs, the taunting teens, the hostile road signs that greet Atticus (Jonathan Majors) and Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) as they head off on a road trip to find Atticus’ missing father.
That’s not to say they aren’t literal monsters too: Misha Green’s show dives right into fantastical critter territory from the opening sequence, a bravura statement of intent that fuses vivid colour and otherworldly spectacle with tentacular flights of disturbing fantasy. And that’s before the UFO turns up.
There’s gore and there are dark delights aplenty that will satisfy those seeking splattering, slithering, oozing occult oddities, but the show’s creepy, skin-crawling promise is most evident when it’s balancing its two threads. Sundown towns, where people of colour were ordered to be outside the local borders before sunset, take on a whole new layer when creatures come out to play in the dark – and the blurring of the lines between mythology and manmade horror result in some striking, unsettling sequences. By the time we’re in a cabin-in-the-woods scenario putting white bigots on the same fight for survival as our protagonists, the Night of the Living Dead echoes are at once clever and explicit.
The cast are clearly enjoying the material, and the very act of balancing its ideas serves as a reclamation of horror stories for Black characters, who would typically be sidelined or killed off early in genre fiction. Indeed, showrunner Green (who co-created Underground) takes the time to get to know Letitia and Atticus before they’re dropped into the bonkers adventure, with Jurnee Smollett’s dance scene with Letitia’s sister particularly fleshing her out as a rounded character. Jonathan Majors, fresh from Da 5 Bloods, brings a love of sci-fi to a character who’s equally passionate in his defiance of abusive authority. Joined by the wonderful Courtney B Vance as Atticus’ Uncle George, they’re a motley crew with an entertaining repartee – even as they’re all braced for the humiliation and hate that will be casually thrown at them in Jim Crow-era America.
That could be explored in more nuanced depth, and hopefully it will be as the show develops, but the opening episode is a playful, exciting signpost of how much the series is embracing unsubtle pulpy thrills. You can feel the show finding its identity in a nail-biting car chase that’s racing against a setting sun, yet played out at a slow enough pace that won’t cause our heroes to get pulled over. If Lovecraft Country can manage to steer its way through these elements without losing that initial burst of energy and style, this high-concept journey through the darkest depths of America has got legs. Also, wings. And horns. And teeth.
Lovecraft Country Season 1 is available on Sky Atlantic. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW, for £8.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.