When I first sat down to watch “Lovecraft Country," I was ecstatic. The producers attached (fellows named J.J. Abrams & Jordan Peele), HBO-all stars involved (“The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire” star Michael K. Williams) and premise of the story gave me a glimmer of hope that HBO would continue their impressive streak of original shows airing in 2020. We’re in a content vacuum after all, and if I get 10 weeks of new programming this year — I’ll take it, no questions.
Then, like 2020, I sat down, got confused for a few hours and lost any real enthusiasm I had left.
“Lovecraft” tells the tale of Korean War veteran Atticus Freeman, played by “Da 5 Bloods” breakout star Jonathan Majors, returning to the U.S. and his hometown of Chicago following the disappearance of his father Montrose, played by Michael K. Williams. While Atticus’ science fiction fandom and love for all pulp novels of the early 20th century make him far more imaginative than other African Americans living in Jim Crow America, he is soon forced to enlist the help of his “Negro Travel Guide” writing Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and childhood friend Letitia Lewis (“Birds of Prey” star Jurnee Smollet).
The group embarks upon a cross-country mission in search of his father – who has been taken by a mysterious group of men called “The Order of the Ancient Dawn” and business magnate Samuel Braithwaite (Tony Goldwyn) to Ardham, Massachusetts in the hopes of learning more about Atticus’ late mother’s ancestry.
A journey begins and the threesome encounter numerous threats along the way — including both terrifying racists occupying white communities and literal “Lovecraft”-inspired monsters that lurk in shadowy places across the landscape. And while the foundation seems to be the perfect blend of pressing social discussion and supernatural, bloody horror that genre fans and history lovers would seemingly enjoy, the final product fails to decide which it actually wants to say — letting the show mire somewhere in-between and making me doubtful of the final landing.
From an optimistic lens, “Lovecraft” still has plenty to offer for casual viewers looking to get scared or learn more about the unstated parts of our nation’s past. Majors and Smollet both give strong performances as toughened, cynical Atticus and brash, outspoken Leti respectively, the push and pull between their relationship dynamic and approach to problem-solving serving as strong dramatic tension whenever they encounter unfamiliar threats along the way. Smollet especially shines a strong light on her immense talent in the early episodes, painting a clear picture of someone struggling to find a place to call home and bringing all of her energy into the more frantic sequences of the pilot. She’s the story’s heroine and knows it from the beginning.
Not to be outdone by the performances, technical lovers will find fancy here too. Aided through her dazzling, painterly imagery and phenomenal voice-over addition from author James Baldwin’s 1965 debate on racism in America, show runner Misha Green (“Underground”) unloads the full metaphorical arsenal in the pilot episode – keeping the story moving and engaging the viewer with 1950’s inspired sights, sounds and character-building capped off by a harrowing, slow-speed car chase between racist police officers and the threesome as they attempt to beat it out of a “sundown town”. Green’s direction and knack for mixing thematic elements seems unquestionable and focused in these early stages, which makes the later episodes more disappointing in hindsight and kept me wondering what may have happened.
My biggest issue with “Lovecraft” comes in the form of narrative pacing and overall confusion – which the pilot handled beautifully, and the second episode falls flatly upon its face. Once the group arrives in Ardham and discovers the meaning behind why Montrose has been kidnapped, they are forced into relative isolation among a tiny, medieval village and separate rooms of the mansion overseen by the Braithwaite family – not yet realizing the fantastic powers their hosts possess and trapped in a series of highly baffling and incalculable fantasies.
The show sells itself on being a road trip-based, anthology-driven epic spanning across the country, and once it locks up its best and brightest characters inside rooms (and their own minds) for too long – it quite literally trips over its own two feet. I could barely follow what was happening at any given time, and while the third episode returned some of the stronger elements (especially in Smollet) – the story’s framework still left me disappointed and disordered as to where the show was headed next.
I recognize television need to keep viewers in the dark at times to keep the level of intrigue higher before the season concludes, but in the end I was treated to so much plot movement in just an hour that I could hardly wrap my head around how they got from A-B. This show should have spread everything it has jam-packed into the first episodes across the full length of the season, keeping us focused on a single, central unknown rather than five or 10.
Pacing aside, the show resides between a captivating look at the racism we faced (and unfortunately still do) in this country and the horrors that abound in any prestige-driven television show over the past decade. The performances are great and visuals remarkable – yet something about the direction of the story following the pilot episode makes me hesitant to crown it another true HBO success in its early stages. If we’re lucky enough to head back out on the road and face more monsters (both literal and figurative) with Atticus, Leti and Freeman family members moving forward, I think “Lovecraft” can rebound. For now, it remains a muddled, somewhat confusing learning experiment – much like the country it aims to critique.
You can find the first three episodes of “Lovecraft Country” streaming on any HBO services now.