Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country, based on the Matt Ruff novel of the same name, quickly crystallizes the similarities between the plights of Black America and the Lovecraftian hero. Unease defines both; a pervading sense not only of being unwelcome, but of real danger that has no definitive form. The first episode smartly avoids pandering to Lovecraft’s fandom. Instead, it builds likable characters while surrounding them with distinctly unlikable people and circumstances.
Our hero is Atticus ‘Tic’ Freeman (Johnathan Majors), a blerd Korean War veteran with a steady hand, a sharp mind, and a complex home life. In what feels more Silent Hill than HP, Tic receives a letter from his estranged, currently missing father. The letter urges a visit to Ardham (initially misread as Arkham) to discover and inherit Tic’s birthright. Ardham is conspicuously absent from the map, but should be located in rural Massachusetts aka Lovecraft country. Tic is joined by his uncle George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance) and his childhood friend Letita ‘Letti’ Lewis (Jurnee Smollett). Letti would terrify Lovecraft with her foul mouth, fiery personality and general capability. Uncle George presents an intriguing hypocrisy that may be at the heart of the entire series. Black Americans are due their fair share and attention must be paid, yet abusive family dysfunction is strictly a private matter. The pilot episode prods us to look at the whole picture, not just the parts we want to see. Lovecraft is both a horror icon and an unblinking racist. 1950’s America is an idyllic time of postwar prosperity for the white man only. People are the monsters but (apologies for the truism) so are the monsters.
“How do you wring an entire TV series’ worth of tension out of Lovecraftian malaise?” was my biggest question for this series. Green and Co. deftly answer this by not restricting the show’s tone to slow-burning menace. It isn’t absent– narrowing eyes of the narrow minded do the trick– but it is joined by two thrilling car chases, the siege of a secluded cabin, and a dash of body horror in the final act. Such flexibility keeps things fresh; a great “look out behind you” shot featuring a police car demonstrates a heartening sure-handedness on the creative team’s part. We won’t be straying far from Lovecraft’s inspiration, however. A bizarre opening dream featuring aliens, Cthulhu and Jackie Robinson, along with HBO’s “later this season” tease of Tesla coils, hooded ritualists, and insanity guarantee that HP, like America’s complex and ugly legacy, will not be forgotten.