Arts & Culture » Television

Terror, time travel & tentacles; the Lavender Tube on scifi and horror TV series

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in 'Lovecraft Country'
Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in 'Lovecraft Country'  

Lovecraft Country
Lovecraft Country is HBO's new signature Sunday night series, premiering August 16. It is perfect viewing for this complex summer from hell that somehow manages to be set 70 years ago while also being very much about the issues facing us right now.

Based on Matt Ruff 's novel, Lovecraft Country follows Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he meets up with his friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) to embark on a road trip across 1950s Jim Crow America in search of his missing father (Michael Kenneth Williams). HBO says, "This begins a struggle to survive and overcome both the racist terrors of white America and the terrifying monsters that could be ripped from a Lovecraft paperback."

HBO does a disservice with this tepid description of a series that has all the elements of Get Out that made your skin crawl and your heart stop, while also being a lush period piece that sometimes feels like Masterpiece Mystery with Black people.

Lovecraft Country is Black Lives Matter, the prequel, when a wrong look could get a Black man lynched and a Black woman on her own was a target for assault. It is every Black person being profiled and every cop being a white supremacist. In this world, when the sun sets, terror begins.

Does it ever.

This series is built on sleight of hand, nuance and the growing tension that comes with incipient fear. The atmosphere is fraught: Everyone knows what can happen and everyone knows they might be powerless to stop it. This is the foundation of Lovecraft Country: the creeping dread, the very real terrors wrought by racism, the way Northerners are adrift in the South where the Civil War is still being waged in only slightly more subtle fashion than a century earlier.

The writing is solid, the direction impeccable and the acting is off the charts superb. Jurnee Smollett, who revealed last week that she had never been paid equal to her male co-stars before this, gives a smoldering, searing, brilliant performance. Michael Kenneth Williams is as good as he was in The Wire and Courtney B. Vance reminds us that he is one of the most under-rated actors in Hollywood. Tony Goldwyn, who was enmeshed with Kerry Washington in Scandal, here plays a white supremacist cult leader—the antithesis of his role in Scandal.

Not everything works in Lovecraft Country, but this isn't one of those The Help-style dramas where benevolent white saviors help the Black people who can't help themselves. This is terror and rage, repressed emotion and the frog boil that is microagression writ large. It's a must watch—but not for the faint of heart or anyone tempted to say "not all white people." Be prepared to squirm in your seat.

Lovecraft Country is executive produced by Misha Green (Underground), who also serves as show runner and J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele.


Sissy (Marin Ireland) and Vanya (Ellen Page) 'Umbrella Academy'  

The Umbrella Academy
Season 2 of the quirky queer-ish sci-fi/time travel/fantasy Netflix series dropped July 31 and it is even more fabulous than season 1. Beware of spoilers (there are none here), as a lot happens in season 2—so much!

The Umbrella Academy has a complex premise. On October 1, 1989, 43 women around the world gave birth simultaneously. The creepy part is none of them appeared to be pregnant prior to the onset of labor. Seven of the children get adopted by a strange billionaire, Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore), and turned into a superhero team that he calls "The Umbrella Academy."

Hargreeves gives the children numbers rather than names, but they eventually are named by their nanny robot-mother, Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins), as: Luther, Diego, Allison, Klaus, Number Five (his only name), Ben, and Vanya. While putting six of his children to work fighting crime, Sir Reginald keeps Vanya (Ellen Page) apart from her siblings' activities, as she supposedly demonstrates no powers of her own.

To say more is to give away too much. But the second season is quite different from the first—broader, more depth, lighter while also being more emotionally resonant. The siblings are growing and changing and the series itself has developed a touch of Dr. Who that is quite compelling. There are queer subplots galore, though not all end well. And of course Page is the lesbian Ellen we still love.


Maggie (Jahkara Smith) and Tabitha (Ashley Romans) in 'NOS4A2'  

NOS4A2
Season 2 of NOS4A2, based on the novel by Joe Hill (Stephen King's son), is better than season 1—more frightening, better character and plot development, more queers.

Charlie Manx (out actor Zachary Quinto) abducts kids and takes them to a place called Christmasland — "It's a very special place where every day is Christmas Day and unhappiness is against the law!" Except for them being victims of Charlie, who feeds on their youth and takes their souls.

Victoria "Vic" McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings) is a young working-class artist who discovers while riding over a bridge one day that she has a supernatural ability to track the elusive and seemingly immortal Charlie Manx and go in and out of the portal to the supernatural world he inhabits.

Vic teams up with Maggie (Jahkara Smith), who can scry the future with a peculiar set of Scrabble tiles she keeps in a cool little bag. Maggie is homeless, having been disowned by her mother for being gay. She helps the police with finding missing kids.

In season 1, Maggie met Detective Tabitha Hutter (Ashley Romans) while tracking Charlie with Vic. In season 2—well, you will have to watch, on AMC and Hulu.


Martha Knows Best
If you just can't watch another White House press briefing or the prime time pundit line-up and the escalating coronavirus numbers have you freaked, we recommend self-care. We watched Martha Stewart's new show Martha Knows Best on HGTV the other night and we recommend at least one viewing. It's set on her palatial estate/farm in Bedford, NY where she is quarantining.

In the series she spends her time explaining how to do things you will likely never do, from building a dog run to washing her prize-winning Chow-Chows while wearing a Hefty bag to keep dry to cleaning ducks and explaining to random people via Zoom how to groom and care for their animals (don't let your dogs get sunburned! keep your ducks in at night!).

Martha Knows Best is Versailles meets Green Acres, but Stewart is oddly delightful and it all seems quite normal while you're watching. She also has a "impress me" segment in which the non-landed among us try to create something she thinks is cool. You might want to be high while watching.

So for the calm before the Sturm und Drang, you really must stay home, stay safe and stay tuned.

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