DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Some of the most daring and relevant TV dramas of the past year, shows that have a lot to say about both racism and sexism, have come from the genre broadly described as science fiction - "The Watchmen" (ph) on HBO, "Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels" on Showtime, and now, coming Sunday from HBO, is "Lovecraft Country," a miniseries that's really tricky to describe, which in this case is a compliment.
Like Matt Ruff's "Lovecraft Country" novel, on which this HBO 10-part drama is based, the story is drawn from some of the concepts and creatures from horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote about a century ago. His stories featured sorcerers and monsters, aliens and alternate universes and in the past have inspired such cult films as "The Dunwich Horror," "Re-Animator" and "From Beyond." The magic and the monsters are part of "Lovecraft Country" as well, but what Matt Ruff does in his novel and showrunner and writer Misha Green does even more in her TV adaptation is subvert Lovecraft's fiction and deepen it by framing it all from a bold, new perspective.
Lovecraft's views and some of his story's themes were overtly racist. But "Lovecraft Country" upends all that by presenting a narrative in which the heroes are African American, the setting is the racially divided 1950s, and each episode of the miniseries seems to have its own tone. HBO made only half of "Lovecraft Country" available for preview, but so far, I really love its mixture of consistency and surprises. Episodes have reminded me of such movies as "Alien," "Poltergeist" and "Indiana Jones," while also telling their own unfolding mystery story.
Two of the other executive producers of "Lovecraft Country" are Jordan Peele of "Get Out" and J.J. Abrams of "Lost," both of whom have done exciting and often thoughtful work in the genre of fantasy. Their support has lent prominence to HBO's "Lovecraft Country," but it's Misha Green who provides much of the magic here. She not only writes most episodes but has improved upon the novel by deepening and altering both the characters and the narrative.
In the opening episode, three of the main characters are driving east from Chicago when they stop for a moment in a secluded stretch of tree-lined road. The trio consists of Atticus, a young Korean War veteran played by Jonathan Majors, his childhood friend Letitia, played by Jurnee Smollett, and his uncle George, played by Courtney B. Vance. There may be danger lurking in those woods, but a different type of danger presents itself when a sheriff played by Jamie Harris drives up and begins asking questions. The uncle responds as politely as possible, but the tension quickly escalates.
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JAMIE HARRIS: (As Sheriff Eustace Hunt) Who are you?
COURTNEY B VANCE: (As Uncle George Freeman) George Freeman, sir. This here is my nephew Atticus and his friend Letitia.
HARRIS: (As Sheriff Eustace Hunt) Where are you all from?
VANCE: (As Uncle George Freeman) Chicago, sir.
HARRIS: (As Sheriff Eustace Hunt) You're a long way from home.
VANCE: (As Uncle George Freeman) Oh, we're just passing through, taking a little bathroom break, sir, is all.
HARRIS: (As Sheriff Eustace Hunt) Any of you all know what a sundown town is?
VANCE: (As Uncle George Freeman) Yes, sir. We do.
HARRIS: (As Sheriff Eustace Hunt) Well, this is a sundown county. And if I have found you pissing in my woods like animals after dark, it would have been my sworn duty to hang every single one of you from them trees.
JONATHAN MAJORS: (As Atticus Freeman) It's not sundown yet.
HARRIS: (As Sheriff Eustace Hunt) Sunset is at 7:09 today. That's seven minutes from now.
MAJORS: (As Atticus Freeman) Then we'll be out of the county in six.
HARRIS: (As Sheriff Eustace Hunt) Now, that's impossible heading south on the road you're currently on unless you were to speed. And if you were to speed, I'd have to pull you over.
MAJORS: (As Atticus Freeman) Then we'll head north.
HARRIS: (As Sheriff Eustace Hunt) That might work. Why don't you give it a try?
VANCE: (As Uncle George Freeman) We will, sir.
MAJORS: (As Atticus Freeman) Is it legal to make a U-turn here?
HARRIS: (As Sheriff Eustace Hunt) Aren't you a smart one? Now, ordinarily I would consider a U-turn a violation. But if you ask me real nice, I might just let it go this time.
BIANCULLI: It's not revealing too much or overstating things to say that the real monsters in "Lovecraft Country," the scariest ones, aren't the flesh-eating creatures borrowed from Lovecraft's fiction. They're the authority figures, the bigots, the people who are in power and willing to use it. The clearly fictional monsters are almost a relief, but they too are scary, as are the ghosts, the wizards and the other supernatural elements.
Even as it raises tension as often as it raises important issues, this miniseries is a lot of fun to watch. Part of that comes from the visual flair, with obvious nods to famous films and sequences. And part comes from its intentionally anachronistic use of music. When the same soundtrack can find ways to make great use of a righteous rant by spoken-word poet Gil Scott-Heron and the "Movin' On Up" theme from "The Jeffersons," I'm all in.
Yet what makes "Lovecraft Country" work the most in this HBO version is its humanity. The relationships between the characters are key - friends turning to lovers, fathers and sons trying to reconnect, sisters being both supportive and competitive. Jurnee Smollett, who starred in Misha Green's slavery-era TV drama "Underground," is great here as Letitia, an action hero every bit as dynamic and crucial to the story as Jonathan Major is as Atticus. There's also a large supporting cast, including Michael Kenneth Williams from "The Wire" and Abbey Lee. They're given lots to do and do it very well indeed.
"Lovecraft Country" the book took Lovecraft's ideas, played with them and played against them, emerging with something better and more meaningful. "Lovecraft Country" the HBO series does that to the book as well. It's got a lot to say, and the way it says it makes for one wild ride.
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BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, a gripping inside look at the Trump administration's crackdown on immigration. For two years, filmmakers Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau had unprecedented access to immigration enforcement officers and the immigrants they detained. The result is the six-part series "Immigration Nation," now available on Netflix. Hope you can join us.
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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with help from Charlie Kaier and additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF ED PALERMO BIG BAND'S "AFFINITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.