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18 Emmy nominations for HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' give it a dubious distinction

The canceled show drew attention to U.S. racial atrocities in a way that used America's own gothic traditions — challenging and subversively transforming them.

“Lovecraft Country” earned the dubious distinction Tuesday of scoring what is almost certainly the most-ever Emmy nominations — for a canceled sci-fi/horror series. With 18 nods in categories ranging from best acting to best writing to best stunts, the overload of nominations is as puzzling as its discontinuation after the season one finale in October became the most-watched new episode of an original series on HBO Max in its first day of availability.

For all its monsters and special effects, the focus of “Lovecraft Country” was unapologetically racial: The violence was based on historic incidents.

The show, which follows protagonist Atticus as he searches for his missing father across the landscape of 1950s America, featured fantastic acting, and I lived for Jurnee Smollett’s wardrobe. Most of the plotlines were compelling and intriguing. However, like many shows in the sci-fi/horror genre, the storylines could meander, and plot points were sometimes confusing.

In other words, it didn’t deserve 18 Emmy nominations — but it also didn’t deserve to be canceled. “Lovecraft Country” was a groundbreaking show in its genre with an important message about who the real monsters in America are: white hegemons. It wasn’t only entertaining and thought-provoking: It also drew attention to America's racial atrocities in a way that used America's own gothic traditions — challenging and subversively transforming them.

As Atticus searches for his father, he encounters supernatural monsters and learns that he might have an important role to play in an ancient ritual. Like the superior “Watchmen,” the show also incorporates historical events, such as the murder of Emmett Till, combining real-life racial horrors with supernatural ones.

The Lovecraft of the title refers to H.P. Lovecraft, a visionary writer who was born in Rhode Island in 1890. Lovecraft was known for creating fantasy worlds and frightening creatures that boggled the imagination. Lovecraft was also a racist — and his stories are full of racism. In his work, Lovecraft always seemed to be saying that immigrant and nonwhite populations were just as horrific as the monsters in his stories — and that only white men could vanquish them.

“Lovecraft Country” took Lovecraft’s racism, tackled it and transformed it, reclaiming those mythic creatures for Black audiences. The show is based on the book “Lovecraft Country” by Matt Ruff, a novel that explores the connection between racism and Lovecraft’s world throughout Atticus’ journey across America.

Misha Green, who adapted Ruff’s book for the HBO show, said she was “aware of the ‘blatant racist things’” in Lovecraft’s original stories, TheWrap reported. However, Green was “intrigued” by what Ruff had done in his book — recovering the stories and showing the “realities of racism in a way that appreciates Lovecraft’s work without glorifying it.” Basically, the show said his monsters belong to everyone.

This endeavor is particularly important because of the evolution of race in the sci-fi and horror genres. Initially, people of color were the monsters. Things shifted a bit with George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, in which the Black protagonist, Ben (played by Duane Jones), is portrayed as a hero. However, Black bodies were still exploited and often experienced visceral, gory acts of violence as disposable characters. With hit movies like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” in 2017, we are entering a new, exciting phase in horror that grounds Black stories and prioritizes Black characters.

In her 2011 academic study “Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films From the 1890s to Present” (also made into a documentary), Robin R. Means Coleman traces the trajectory of Black representation in horror and suggests there is something particularly powerful about this genre in that it allows for Black voices to reclaim their own stories and challenge racism.

For all its monsters and special effects, the focus of “Lovecraft Country” was unapologetically racial: The violence was based on historic incidents, and the characters were traumatized by living in America — not by fighting supernatural creatures.

Leah Richards, an English professor at LaGuardia Community College who focuses on horror, wondered whether the HBO producers who pulled the plug were looking for something more fully in the fiction camp. Perhaps “executives wanted Lovecraftian horror without the overt racism,” she suggested. “Instead they had to confront history they’d successfully ignored, racial violence they'd relegated to a more distant and abstract past and Black characters being haunted by that past and brutalized in their present to an extent that defied imagination until the series imagined it for us.”

Every so often, a show comes along that fans love and many critics praise but executives don’t know how to handle as it takes on a life of its own. Maybe HBO greenlighted a project it ended up feeling too uncomfortable about to continue and the Emmy judges felt guilty such a promising show got canceled.

While in the end, neither side got it right — the series should be continued but not venerated with 18 Emmy nominations — at least its distinctive demise is a reminder that pathbreaking creative work should be given a second look before being dismissed.