Certain TV shows come out and comment on the times we live in. They are meant to be social statements on our world and society as a whole. A great example of this would be All In the Family. That show, with its social statements and satiric look at the culture of the 1970s, made a statement by virtue of the fact that it was so timely.
Other shows come out and then take a little longer to catch fire. People loved Breaking Bad but it wasn’t until that show landed on Netflix that it’s greatness, streamability, and the power of what television could be, really caught fire. Sure, HBO’s The Sopranos gave us vicious TV the likes of which we’d never seen before, but Breaking Bad opened the floodgates to a wealth of TV that we didn’t even know we wanted… but sorely needed.
Then there’s a show like Lovecraft Country. A story so unique, so timely, and so perfectly conceived it is almost as if H.P. Lovecraft has been channeled from beyond the grave to make his writing come to life on this show. At the same time the sheer intelligence behind Lovecraft Country (it is produced by Jordan Peele, Misha Green, and J.J. Abrams), is that it uses the horror that Lovecraft created (as well as the writer’s well documented racial prejudices) to drive home the real horror in this series.
The set-up to Lovecraft Country is as simple as it is engaging. Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) returns home to see his father Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams), but instead finds that his dad has left town. Atticus decides to search for him and is aided in this quest by his Uncle George (the incredible Courtney B. Vance) and Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett). It just so happens that Uncle George is the publisher of a book called the “Safe Negro Travel Guide”. He knows the area that Atticus wants to traverse well, and given that this is 1950s Jim Crow America, Atticus couldn’t ask for a better traveling partner. What starts as a solid premise for a road trip, finding Montrose Freeman in Ardham (a VERY dangerous area for African Americans), soon becomes a journey of a much different sort. Touching on such themes as Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and obviously those of H.P. Lovecraft, even as we watch Atticus and Co. happily make their way (at least at the start), Lovecraft Country is always filled with a sense of foreboding.
It isn’t long before merely being African American in any town gets them into trouble. Eventually, they cross paths with a squad of racist police officers and we know our main characters are in serious trouble. Suddenly, just when things seem to be at their worst that’s when the best Lovecraftian elements come to the rescue. More than anything, we see that things like vampires and witches DON’T see or care anything at all about color or race. We are all the same in the eyes of those beasts. One might think that those dire situations would cause somebody like racist Sheriff Eustace Hunt (played to chilling perfection by Jamie Harris) to change their ways. Sadly, in Lovecraft Country racism doesn’t end in the face of self-preservation. Right at the moment where somebody like hunt could see that we truly are “all in this together,” he makes a selfish choice after selfish choice until those decisions, literally, consume him.
The story of Lovecraft Country continues this way. It unravels information about our characters, often relying on their pasts to give us an understanding of who they are in the present. Also, there’s enough discussion about the character of Montrose Freeman to turn him into a myth before we ever see him on screen. As Atticus, Letitia and George make their way deeper and deeper through this area that George’s precocious daughter warned him about (she drew pictures all over George’s cautionary travel guide), it soon becomes apparent that truth and fiction are completely intertwined. We discover a group known as The Order but nothing about it is orderly. Our characters deal with witches and other entities that seem to emanate from the pages of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. Try as Atticus, Letitia, and George might to extricate themselves from these situations, everything they do further reinforces that they just need to push through them. You can run away from home, join the service, disassociate yourself from your family, travel the country so you’re constantly away from your family, but eventually you have to face yourself. Lovecraft Country does that with its characters and by proxy it forces America to stare into the same mirror as them.
Like Don’t Get Out and the soon to be released Antebellum, what makes Lovecraft Country stand out is the fact that it has taken something old and retold it through a wholly new lens. However, to call it new does it a disservice because Lovecraft Country is merely telling a story that has always been with us. It isn’t just a show about the horrors of racism filtered through the horror writings of one of America’s most celebrated and flawed authors.
Lovecraft Country shows audiences something that has always been with us. It’s simply been given a wider platform (HBO and all it’s ancillary avenues) to tell a different facet of the story. As you watch the show what you see soon becomes less different, because of the universal nature of storytelling. The story of Lovecraft Country doesn’t belong to any one group. However, the group that is telling this story is finally getting a chance to represent itself and put across a tale their way.
Throughout history, cultures that have been unfairly marginalized have turned many negatives into positives. They have taken slurs, physical violence, and even pieces of pop culture and literally flipped the script on them. These groups take these things and make them their own, thus stripping them of power and then empowering themselves. Lovecraft Country is great not just because it does that, but because it makes you forget (even if its just for a brief moment) that these groups ever had to endure those awful things at all. It is because of that, that this HBO show confers a greater power than any monster (human or not) ever could.
Lovecraft Country begins on HBO Sunday, August 16 (9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT).