It’s par for the course in genre fiction for ideas to outpace execution. Even massively successful, highly regarded writers like George R.R. Martin tend to have a stilted tone that’s easily parodied; the shared ethos of fantasy and science fiction puts exposition first and prose second. In his lifetime, the now-massively influential H.P. Lovecraft toiled in obscurity, part of a wider dismissal of so-called “pulp” as a source of artistic merit. It would take years after his death in 1937 for Lovecraft’s monsters and aliens to earn respect as real literature, and still more for the author’s legacy to be critically interrogated on account of his open bigotry.
Like the 2016 novel it’s based on, HBO’s Lovecraft Country is both a tribute to and a subversion of Lovecraft’s work. Still, some of its parallels are more intentional than others. A family drama transplanting Lovecraft’s mythology to a Black family in 1950s Chicago, Lovecraft Country is filled to the brim with fascinating ideas: the way the supernatural can enforce or upset historical wrongs; the potential for horror as a metaphor for the Black experience; defiant reclamation of what was never meant for you, from books to magical powers. Where it falters, like so many of its peers on page and screen, is execution.
Lovecraft Country, which debuts on Sunday, was chiefly adapted from Matt Ruff’s original text by Misha Green, cocreator of the antebellum drama Underground. It was also developed under the auspices of Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, whose portfolio has rapidly expanded in the three and a half years since Peele’s breakout feature, Get Out. As Peele himself has shifted focus from straightforward comedy to allegorical horror, so too has Monkeypaw, named after the 1902 short story that gave rise to a ubiquitous term for backfired blessings. Key and Peele is to Us as The Last O.G., a gentrification sitcom about a Brooklyn ex-con cocreated by Peele, is to The Twilight Zone, an anthology reboot for the streaming age with Peele as Rod Serling.
Peele’s producing career is still young, but its TV slate already has a legible set of fingerprints. (Lovecraft Country was also produced by J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot.) Hunters, recently renewed by Amazon Prime, is another retro milieu—comics, in this case—rewritten as a parable for racial justice. The Twilight Zone, on CBS All Access, and Weird City, on YouTube Premium, are each collections of fiction both speculative and short. In every case, the high concept is the hook, often more than just one. The typical Jordan Peele production, in other words, sounds a lot like the typical Jordan Peele project, full stop.
But the consistency of Monkeypaw’s M.O. has yet to translate into consistency of output, Lovecraft Country included. Trapped behind the paywall of relatively obscure streamers, Twilight Zone and Weird City are also subject to the inherent ups and downs of starting from scratch with every episode. Hunters, starring Al Pacino as an aging Jewish avenger, never lived up to the addictive allure of its premise. Many of Hunters’ flaws, in fact, end up recurring in Lovecraft Country: clumsily combined tones, flat characters, an inability to fully capitalize on the once-denigrated art it takes as inspiration. All of these series have their own showrunners with their own artistic signatures; like Green’s Underground, Lovecraft Country can feel like an action-adventure that just happens to be set at a flash point in America’s painful, racist past. Still, it took years for Peele to shape Get Out into a perfect analogy for an intangible kind of modern racism. Outsourcing that symbolic approach is both efficient and, inevitably, not as precise.
Lovecraft Country follows Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a Korean War veteran who works with his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), a fellow sci-fi fan, on a guide for Black travelers—the sort of “green book” recently invoked by a certain Best Picture winner. When his estranged father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams), goes missing, Tic recruits his childhood friend Leti (Jurnee Smollett) on a road trip to Ardham, Massachusetts, a clear echo of New Englander Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham. There, he learns of a traumatic ancestral link to a secret society known as the Sons of Adam—think the KKK if the title of “Grand Wizard” were extremely literal.
The Sons of Adam and their elaborate mythology provide Lovecraft Country’s larger mystery, as prodigal daughter Christina Braithwhite (Abbey Lee) follows Tic and Leti back to Chicago. Echoing the structure of both the book and pulp serials, the plots get more stand-alone after the first two episodes set up the premise: a haunted house mystery where the ghosts are victims of Tuskegee-like experiments; an Indiana Jones–like heist of buried treasure in a museum dedicated to a genocidal explorer. These stories are familiar in their outlines, but filled in with details that speak to Lovecraft Country’s specific concerns.
In following a shell-shocked Black veteran who encounters a supercharged version of institutional racism (one Son of Adam turns out to be a police captain), Lovecraft Country invites some unflattering comparisons to Watchmen, HBO’s other recent work of revisionist fantasy. The show comes by those parallels honestly; Ruff’s novel predates Damon Lindelof’s unauthorized sequel by several years. But the comparison turns out to be an instructive one. Like The Leftovers before it, Watchmen expertly instilled a sense of bewilderment in the viewer, who wondered what on earth was going on while feeling confident the creators had a firm grasp on whatever that may be.
Such a balance is incredibly hard to strike for an audience jaded by decades’ worth of storytelling tropes. Still, it’s vital for a show that explicitly invokes Lovecraft, creator of Cthulhu and other eldritch inventions that spark the imagination. (Look no further than the Reddit bait of True Detective Season 1.) Instead, the mythology of Lovecraft Country is at once too elaborate and not intriguing enough to draw the viewer in. Its CGI monsters and assorted Macguffins are instead drearily predictable, the last thing you want a genre driven by suspense and invention to be. One can guess within seconds which major character is sentenced to die so they can motivate another; reveals can be anticipated hours before they actually occur.
Like many prestige shows, Watchmen also emphasized character over plot, a hierarchy that Lovecraft Country inverts to its detriment. Majors has rightfully been anointed a Next Big Thing for his work in The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, but Tic is a generic sketch that makes for a poor use of his talents. (Our signal that he’s a bookish nerd despite a ripped physique is that he occasionally wears glasses.) Leti, for her part, is a textbook Strong Female Character, shouting her way through scenes as if volume were a substitute for nuance; despite the objective beauty of the actors portraying them, the chemistry between Tic and Leti ends up unsurprisingly rote. Christina, finally, is an obvious surrogate for the perils of white womanhood, more upset she’s shut out of evil institutions than that said institutions exist. The problems she stands for are real, but all she’s there to do is stand for them, coming off as more mouthpiece than person.
Brightly lit and rapidly paced, Lovecraft Country can feel distinctly un-HBO, which has only leaned into desaturated slow burns as the years have gone by. That’s not a knock in and of itself; prestige signifiers have long lost any connection with actual prestige. HBO has experimented with supernatural camp before with True Blood, and Lovecraft Country is indeed best when it indulges its campier side. (An excerpt from my notes: “Don’t care about characters or romance. Do care about the wriggly worm baby that just came out of a cow’s birth canal.”) Alas, True Blood had some truly great sex scenes, plus a rock-solid sense of itself. Lovecraft Country lacks either.
Lovecraft Country’s scattered quality is best expressed in its soundtrack, which cartwheels from era-appropriate pop songs to jarring contemporary hits: Cardi B, Rihanna, even a Frank Ocean sync in a gay sex scene, a choice that would’ve been on-the-nose in 2012. Twists are based on information the audience doesn’t have; threads are suspended for hours at a time or seemingly dropped altogether. (That wriggly worm baby never comes up again, at least in the five episodes I’ve seen.) Lovecraft Country is within its rights to use people as a vehicle for a story, rather than vice versa—but the story has to be considered and focused enough to be worth the trade-off. The show’s most prominent backer has a knack for channeling anxieties and trauma through horror, articulating them in ways mere naturalism never could. In this case, the skill hasn’t trickled down.