HBO brings us a show about the horrors of racism and also monsters.
Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) is a Korean War vet in 1955 who discovers his father Montrose (Michael K. Williams) is missing. Atticus, his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), and his friend Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) set off to find Montrose in the town of Ardham, Massachusetts, the town that H.P. Lovecraft wrote as “Arkham.” They deal with a group of racist law enforcement officers and are going to be killed until the group encounters a herd of monsters. They discover that the town of Ardham is tied up in a secret society and a woman named Christina Braithwhite (Abbey Lee). Soon, Tic and Leti’s fate are tied up in the supernatural, as are the fates of Leti’s sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), Tic’s aunt Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), Hippolyta’s daughter Diana (Jada Harris), and Tic’s former lover Ji-Ah (Jamie Chung).
H.P. Lovecraft was, as I have stated in reviews of other adaptations of his work, a horrible racist. Not in the sense of “oh, it was the 1920s and everyone was racist,” but in the sense of people in the 1920s kept asking him to tone down his opinions on black people. Apologists will try to say his views were common, but not many people have literally published poems about the fact that black people are not human, just sin-filled beasts. Now, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t also create some of the most influential horror ideas of the 20th century, it just means that sometimes you have to appreciate the work of a person while also giving that person the finger for their general shittiness. Like how Roman Polanski should have gone to prison, but Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown were amazing.
This show, though, goes a step further by tying up the concepts and monsters from the Lovecraft Mythos directly with the horror of racism. It depicts the terrible treatment of black people by many of the white people throughout America, including things like the Tulsa massacre of 1921 and “sundown towns,” or places that ordered black people to leave the area after dark (usually maintained through violence even after such things became illegal), making you feel the helplessness and anger of the characters as they’re subject to it. Then, it usually adds in a layer of general horror, like facing down nigh-invincible monsters or unstoppable racial stereotypes brought to life, then adds a level of cosmic horror by making it apparent that all of humanity is but a blink in the eye of the universe. However, we see black people overcoming the horror, whether slaying the monster or traveling through time itself to take hold of their own infinite destinies, something that the protagonists in Lovecraft are almost never able to do. It’s almost as if the horror is something they’ve learned to overcome, unlike Lovecraft’s characters.
The performances are excellent, including both the main and supporting characters. Jurnee Smollett’s role as Letitia is particularly strong, having to bounce between sidekick, love interest, and heroine, as the story requires, while still being the same character. Jonathan Majors, while always having Atticus as the main protagonist, has to play him trying to figure out the rules of the new world into which he has been thrust and manages to keep him likable even when the plot might not. Aunjanue Ellis gets some of the more interesting character moments in the series, which truly allow her to showcase a wide number of her talents. Abbey Lee, while playing a character whose actions seem mostly inscrutable for much of the series, does a good job being the seemingly-less-antagonistic antagonist.
The direction of the show is superb, as is the cinematography. Possibly the only weakness of the show was that it, like Lovecraft, doesn’t always keep the rules of its universe consistent. Then again, maybe that’s part of the point and I just didn’t absorb it as fully as I would have liked. I will say that the writing is at its strongest when dealing with combining the elements of supernatural horror and historical horror, but it seems to be at its weakest when trying to weave all of the plot threads together. The ending seemed a bit off, but maybe that will all correct itself in the next season (which it greatly deserves).
Overall, a great show that everyone should watch.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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