At one point, the male lead of Lovecraft Country, Jonathan Majors, manages to puzzle out what they should do next by saying – and this is a direct quote – ‘if we follow the logic of adventure novels…’. And, of course, he’s completely right. Lovecraft Country, despite how subversive it clearly thinks itself, is operating by the book throughout.
Lovecraft Country is, of course, not actually based on the actual works of H.P. Lovecraft, but rather adapts a book which drew inspiration from him – still, I couldn’t wholly escape the feeling that they’d used the word ‘Lovecraft’ to trick fans of far-out cosmic horror into sitting through a family drama with vague horror leanings. The first five minutes are shameless about this, wheeling out Cthulhu, the jolly green giant himself, in a CGI-heavy sequence which does not at all match the show’s subsequent tone.
Once that’s over, it’s a straightforward adventure with vague, tenuous, nods to the occult. Whatever the threat might be, man or star-beast, our protagonists inevitably escape, just in the nick of time, or something turns up, just in the nick of time. For all the wacky ideas present, the storytelling remains this conventional throughout, culminating in, yes, a final showdown with the main baddy, who might as well be wearing a black hat.
Lovecraft Country suffers from a certain sort of narrative schizophrenia, where it is unable to decide whether it wants to be an adventure-of-the-week story or one longer ongoing tale. It shares this quality with Matt Groening’s Disenchantment – I mean the show, not him falling out of love with storytelling, though you could argue there’s a thin line there. Some weeks’ gimmicks work (the time when they move into the haunted house), some don’t (the time when it becomes Night At The Museum). None point to the writers having much faith in the overarching plot.
These strict weekly divisions mean that when Lovecraft Country does strike on a genuinely creepy idea, there simply isn’t time to explore it properly – certainly not when it’s having to juggle that and the other plotlines that are still hanging around. It is the kind of middling work that might attract a lively fanfiction community simply because there is so much to be fixed (like, let’s say it, Harry Potter). By the end of the hour, we’re inevitably moving swiftly on, and usually leaving behind an idea still fat with untapped potential.
This is something which showrunner Misha Green has already found herself having to apologise for. In that specific case, this was for introducing before almost immediately disposing of a Native American character, a quite shocking misstep for a show which proudly billed itself as “a struggle to survive and overcome…the racist terrors of white America”.
The problem with Lovecraft Country is that when it tries to take itself incredibly seriously, it doesn’t quite have the depth for that. Its treatment of American racial politics – all too clearly the cornerstone of the whole edifice – is very lightly worn. The first episode makes heavy reference to the difficulties of travelling while black in the days of Jim Crow, but after that the show severely undercuts this accurate history by having its black protagonists skip blithely hither and yon across the US without any trouble. And when some toothy CGI blob gobbles up white racists but spares our protagonists, it seems more than anything like they have been attacked by the production’s 21st-century morality.
Racism is something horrible enough in itself – as Lovecraft Country demonstrates simply by including real history – that gluing in monsters and spooky things simply can’t add much. Sure enough, in actual horror terms, in the area of being worried for the characters onscreen (“No, don’t go in there, switch the lights on!”), it’s usually the racism doing most of the work. The monsters cannot help but detract from how seriously that can be treated, to the huge detriment of the show as a whole.
By contrast, the show works a lot better when it’s actively being silly and pulpy. I do not know if Lovecraft ever laughed aloud, as his fellow modernists Evelyn Waugh and Franz Kafka did, when recounting his fundamentally absurd works – but, silly or not, it is these moments that actually put the show’s disenfranchised protagonists in the driver’s seat, rather than making them the eternally put-upon recipients of Historically Accurate™ bigotry. It’s not simply liberatory, it’s also making full use of the show’s more fantastical elements. Had they turned out ten hours where this was the focus, Lovecraft Country could have been something special.
This dynamic of focusing on exactly the wrong areas is also apparent in the family drama. Occasionally, we see the central cast actually acting like real people, and when they do it can carry some real emotional weight. But for long, barren stretches of runtime the show is all too happy just to have them exposit at each other – and to the audience, who the writers really don’t trust to follow what’s going on.
When it comes to stuff like magic, a certain amount of exposition is necessary. But this doesn’t excuse it being used to get across character motivations and family history – nor things that the story has already been desperately pointing to already. There’s a couple of twists that suddenly, aggressively signpost themselves moments before the reveal, which creates an impressive sense of mounting dread, yet the clumsy use of signposting elsewhere makes it seem like this is entirely accidental. And if they are, it’s a shame, because in isolation those were some of the strongest moments present.
This isn’t the only time Lovecraft Country backs itself into a corner, and ending up hobbled because of decisions it’s made elsewhere. In the first episode, everyone is – understandably – shocked when CGI monsters turn up. Then, later, there’s a flashback episode which illustrates that, oh yeah, one of them’s already well aware there’s CGI monsters knocking about. This isn’t simply pouncing on a continuity error, it’s an illustration of a lack of care which points to, if not a show that’s in conflict with itself, then one which simply hasn’t been thought through.
And a lack of forethought does seem to be the problem throughout. There’s little consideration as to how a lot of the disparate moving parts involved hang together. Lovecraft Country has assembled the meaty subject matter of 1950s-era racism, a solid cast (probably the best thing about it), enough budget for some elaborate set-pieces, and a magical-realist side of the occult – and imagined that simply throwing these things in a blender was enough. Unfortunately, good storytelling is not a matter of ticking off a list of the correct points.
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A by-the-numbers story that wants to be bold and daring, and in so doing ends up not engaging with its own strongest elements.
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