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HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' is a mess. Here's why you should watch it anyway

Bill Goodykoontz
Arizona Republic

“Lovecraft Country” is a mess. 

A well-meaning, well-made, well-acted, timely and sometimes important mess, but a mess nonetheless — possibly by design.

And you should watch it. The disparate parts — a tough look at racism, sci-fi horror, Saturday-morning serial adventure, ghost stories — are all strong. It’s the bringing them together that is tricky. 

The HBO limited series, which premieres Sunday, Aug. 16, is based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel. It was developed by Misha Green (“Underworld”), a welcome instance of a woman of color running a show. That choice is relevant — race is the through line in the series, the one thread tying all of the parts together, however loosely at times.

“Lovecraft Country” blends the horrors of Jim Crow-era racism with the monster-filled horrors H.P. Lovecraft wrote about — an intriguing choice as Lovecraft was a white supremacist. The 10-episode series acknowledges this early on.

Racism meets monsters in the horrors of 'Lovecraft Country'

The show is set in 1955. Atticus (Jonathan Majors), known as “Tic,” is a Korean War veteran. (A fantastically twisted opening scene takes him back to the battlefield; no spoilers, but it involves aliens and Jackie Robinson, which provides a pretty good idea of where things are headed.) He is returning home to Chicago to find his missing father, who has sent him a cryptic letter.

Tic is a voracious reader. His Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance, outstanding), notes Tic leafing through a copy of a Lovecraft book. Tic says his father Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams) made him memorize an explicitly racist poem Lovecraft wrote, in hopes of steering him away from the author.

Evidently it didn’t work. There’s a remarkable scene in which Tic is telling a stranger about the novel “The Princess of Mars.” John Carter, he says, goes from being a captain in the Army of Northern Virginia to a warlord on Mars.

“You said the hero was a confederate officer,” the woman says.

“Ex-confederate,” Tic says.

“He fought for slavery,” she says. “You don’t get to put an ‘ex’ in front of that.”

“Stories are like people,” Tic continues. “Love them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try to cherish them. Overlook their flaws.”

Why the HBO show is worth watching

In the first episode (HBO sent critics five of the 10 for review), Tic and Uncle George head to New England to look for Montrose, who has gone missing. Uncle George publishes a Green Book-like guide letting Black travelers know what businesses are safe for them, so it’s a business trip for him. Plus, he wants to find his brother.

They’re accompanied by Letitia (Jurnee Smollett in a star-making turn), Tic’s childhood friend.

They’re all grown up now, and everything that implies. Their relationship is complicated by many factors, not the least of which is the presence of many-eyed monsters in the woods.

Those aren't as scary as the monsters in broad daylight, though — the thick-headed racists who threaten Uncle George, Tic and Leti, as she’s called, and worse. This is vile, in-your-face, infuriating bigotry, the indignities of which include the threat of violence for just sitting down in the wrong diner, and “sundown towns.” If you’re still in the town limits at dark you’ll be hanged, the sheriff explains, leading to a tense, low-speed chase scene.

The trio will land at a mysterious mansion where Christina Braithwhite (Abbey Lee) explains, kind of, the type of magic and bizarre rituals that this little corner of the world runs on (other places, too), most involving her family. It all goes weird, and eventually the story leads back to Chicago, where Leti buys a big house, surprising her sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), who assumed she was broke, since she’s hit up everyone in the family for money. This turns into a haunted-house story, but it also brings the racism of Leti’s would-be neighbors to the fore. Another episode plays like an R-rated version of the “National Treasure” movies (without Nicolas Cage, of course).

The fifth episode, however, finally starts to blend all the worlds the show has created more effectively. Without giving anything away, it centers on identity, especially racial identity, and the power it holds. It’s also as disturbingly sick as any slasher movie. But the mix works here — the horror informs the examination of race, and vice versa, in a more seamless and necessary way than in any episode since the first.

“Lovecraft Country” certainly isn’t without its flaws. But it’s now timelier than its creators mayhave imagined. And it’ll make you think, which may be the best thing about it.

'Lovecraft Country'

9 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 16, on HBO.

Reach Goodykoontz at bill.goodykoontz@arizonarepublic.com. Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. Twitter: @goodyk.

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