Lovecraft Country Episode 1: ‘Sundown’ Review

Lovecraft Country, Misha Green’s TV adaptation of Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name, is not without its charms. Courtney B. Vance, when he’s not spouting stilted exposition, has a kind of gentle warmth which shades at times into pained, uncomfortable weakness — a humane and complicated hint at the kind of temperament a lifetime of trying to survive in segregated America produces. Director Yann Demange’s shots of 1950s Chicago are enjoyably deep and dense, and the scenes in which Atticus (Jonathan Majors) describes a Shoggoth, a monster from H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, while a police officer pulls up and steps out of his car in the background is genuinely chilling.

Beyond that, the show’s plodding script, relative lack of emotional depth, and sensual sterility don’t leave much to dig into. There are a few interesting nuggets regarding the relationship between popular culture and systemic oppression, and when Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) gets into a screaming match with her brother as George (Vance) and Atticus unpack their own family trauma outside on the lawn there’s a glimmer of a smarter, more interesting emotional landscape at play. A young black man going to war to escape his father, to flee the older man’s violence by empowering himself to kill, a family caught in a cycle of abuse and regret, and the sight of that dynamic poisoning another connection in real time — it’s interesting stuff. But it can’t make up for the rest of the episode’s choppy pacing and lack of dramatic tension.

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Lovecraft Country

The Great White North

The violent anti-black racism of New England, a place which often styles itself in opposition to the “unenlightened” South, is an underexplored topic in film, but Lovecraft Country boils it down to the broadest possible terms. For a show so obviously steeped in pulp sensibilities it lacks the attention to detail and quick, confident character-building that make the best adventure stories sing. Instead we get generic yokels, meant to be New Englanders but voiced and acted like Southern small-town shitheels, chasing after our heroes in battered pickup trucks and character after character defined primarily or solely by the fact that they like going on adventures. 

Nor do the mysterious white characters glimpsed during the car chase and again at the episode’s tacked-on cliffhanger ending do much to inspire confidence. None of them, bedecked in pancake makeup and stiff, unlived-in clothing, would look out of place on the set of one of those early-2010s Twilight knockoffs (Beautiful Creatures, Beastly, etc). Lovecraft Country plays broad and flat even when Jackie Robinson is beating Cthulhu to death with a bat in Atticus’s dreams, an inauspicious start to something with a whole lot of historical and emotional material to mince. Still, its few flickers of beauty and insight suggest that like the travelers who arrive at Lovecraft’s titular mountains in the above-mentioned story, we have yet to see the whole of things.

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