SALEM Review: WGN’s Witchy Tale Rewrites History

     April 20, 2014


Witches being the new vampires, WGN (now rebranded as WGN America, the station you once knew for Chicago Cubs games and Law & Order reruns), has jumped on the witch wagon for its first original scripted series, Salem.  It is one of two shows the network ordered straight-to-series (a risky move, meaning there’s no pilot).  The other is Manhattan, a period piece about the creation of the atom bomb.  Additionally, the network has a high-profile miniseries The 10 Commandments planned, which is set to include many well-known actors and filmmakers, such as Michael CeraWes CravenLee Daniels and Gus Van Sant.  Of these projects, Salem may be the weakest to put out front first, but its bizarre mix of violence, sex and the supernatural could find an audience more easily than first appears.  Hit the jump for more.

salem-reviewSalem takes place in the late 17th century in Salem, Massachusetts, at the time of the infamous witch trials.  The series, created by Adam Simon (Bones) and Brannon Braga (24) re-imagines the situation entirely, using the familiar location and a few touchstone names (such as Cotton Mather, here a lusty young Puritan preacher played by Seth Gabel) to set a story that otherwise has no connection with history.

That fact can work in a series’ favor, but only one episode in, it’s hard to see past the anachronisms, gory flourishes and broad ideas. Salem‘s chief strangeness is its insistence that there is no mystery to the trials at all: there were witches, and they were, in fact, controlling the trials to set the Puritans against each other, while they themselves danced with the devil in the woods.

The statement of fact regarding the witches means that Salem isn’t particularly interested in portraying mass hysteria through a lens of historical misogyny, but rather, to pack in as much violence, sex, creepy imagery, terrible torture and magic as possible  Salem has the gruesome palette and overt sexuality of HBO’s graphic supernatural series True Blood, but lacks the humor necessary to temper its absurdity.

Salem focuses primarily on Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery, who has had some noticeable turns recently on Downton Abbey and Dancing on the Edge, after her less-than-memorable starring role in Made in Jersey), who in the course of the first hour goes from a meek girl fallen on hard times to (seven years later) the manipulative matriarch of Salem, marrying (and torturing) the town’s most powerful man.  Her transformation has much to do with her descent into the dark side, facilitated by the mysterious Tituba (Ashley Madekwe), who has become her right-hand woman (and who occasionally is very hands-on).  But Montgomery also does an excellent job embodying her new role even in the short course of the first episode, and is a magnetic personality on screen.

salem-reviewThe same cannot be said for her co-stars, chief among them Shane West (A Walk to Remember) as John Alden, Mary’s former lover.  Returned from war, John is disgusted by what has become of Salem, like the idea of a witch hunt, as well as the personal hypocrisy of the town’s Puritan leaders.  But when his eyes are opened to the reality of witches, he teams up with Isaac Walton (Iddo Goldberg) to uncover the truth and, most likely, attempt to fight the evil powers while reclaiming his lost love.

There are a lot of familiar scenes in Salem regarding Puritanical misunderstandings of faith, and the torture that followed.  But when those Puritan denizens are held up against the witches of Salem — with their mud orgies and masks of pigs, wolves and deer (its reminiscent of True Detective‘s uncovering of satanic practices) — they don’t look quite so bad.  It brings up the point that there’s not really anyone to root for in Salem, at least initially.  Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the town seems situated over a hellmouth, which puts everything on its head.  But Salem makes the mistake of taking itself very seriously, and gorging too heavily on exorcisms, fingers being bitten off, and demonic hags who enjoy the flesh of unfortunate girls.  It’s a mess, but it’s WGN America’s mess.  And like Mary’s embrace of her new dark powers, if it draws an audience, they will surely come to love it.

Salem premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on WGN America.  Watch a series premiere video below: