The exuberant new HBO series “Lovecraft Country,” set in the segregated mid-1950s, could also be called “Metaphor Country.” In each episode, the central characters, all Black, encounter a very different horror motif — gelatinous monsters, a haunted house, a demonic potion — that ultimately represents something real: racism. As if trapped in a spectacularly unamusing amusement park, the characters go from nightmarish ride to nightmarish ride, always stepping back into a white America that doesn’t accept them. The various tropes of “Lovecraft Country” constantly come down to the one monster that can’t be extinguished with a wooden stake or a magic formula, the one whose manifestations range from sundown towns that Blacks need to leave before dark to blazing crosses on front lawns.
So yes, “Lovecraft Country,” created by Misha Green (with Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams as executive producers) and based on the novel by Matt Ruff, arrives at a fitting moment, as Black Lives Matter creates new waves of change and understanding. The show’s scenes of white cops beating Black characters or violently jostling them in the backs of moving vans can no longer be dismissed as history, despite the dated 1950s uniforms; we’ve seen too many video clips of present-day examples. But the series, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m., would stand out at any time, too, as it playfully, and yet deadly seriously, journeys back into America’s past, not only to 1950s segregation but, through one of the series’ ongoing plots, slavery. The creativity on display is phenomenal, with writing that’s layered with meanings and allusions, acting that brings the kind of emotional grounding you don’t always find in genre stories, and visual realizations that are stunning as they pinball among influences including David Cronenberg, Guillermo del Toro, and, of course, Peele.
At the center is young Korean War vet and pulpy sci-fi lover Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), who returns home to the South Side of Chicago after his father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams), has disappeared. Convinced Montrose is in Massachusetts, he joins up with his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and his childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) to make the trip. On the ride there, and there, and then when they return to Chicago, they get trapped in horror stories, each one altering them. I’m not a huge horror fan, especially the broader, bloodier kinds, but as the first five episodes of “Lovecraft Country” cycle through horror formulas I found myself fascinated by the ever-shifting fantasia. It’s as if Atticus & Co. spend an episode in, say, “Get Out,” and then an episode in “The Fly,” and so forth. You really never know what the next episode is going to look like or — with dramatic soundtrack choices including the voices of Gil Scott-Heron, Ntozake Shange, and James Baldwin, the theme song to “The Jeffersons,” and a few nightclub-singer scenes — sound like. On TV, that’s a refreshing quality.
And yet the series doesn’t feel particularly fragmented. It’s an assortment of set pieces, but there’s a plot through-line involving Atticus’s history, cross-generational legacy, and a twisted cult that holds it all together nicely. So do the solid main characters, each of whom continually reveals unexpected facets, some endearing (Atticus’s naivete), others threatening (Montrose’s secrets). There’s an attraction between Atticus and Letitia — who go by Tic and Leti — that is slow-growing, and more rewarding for it. There is the troubled backstory of Tic and Montrose, one that may prove critical to the season-long arc — but still, there are touching moments between the two, as they appear to heal old wounds. There is a metamorphosis-themed episode largely built around Leti’s half-sister, a singer named Ruby (the excellent Wunmi Mosaku), that pushes all kinds of thought-provoking buttons. And there is humor embedded throughout — an “I Shot the Sheriff” joke, for instance — if you’re paying attention.
The jump-scares in “Lovecraft Country” are fun enough if you’re a fan, but the more insidious chills are what kept me on the hook. The evil witches and ugly monsters are creepy, but not nearly as much as the bad humans.
Starring: Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, Courtney B. Vance, Michael K. Williams, Abbey Lee, Tony Goldwyn, Jordan Patrick Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Wunmi Mosaku
On: HBO. Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.