Witches are real on WGN’s Salem
On the heels of the success of ‘American Horror Story: Coven,’ cable channel WGN tries to cast their own ratings spell with the premiere of ‘Salem.’
For a while now, vampires have been the go-to creatures on TV and in movies, from the classics Nosferatu and Dracula to the modern day versions in the Twilight saga and The Vampire Diaries. Vampires seem to be losing their (pun intended) bite, and werewolves are probably too costly a creature to build an entire TV series around (we’ll see if Syfy’s Canadian import Bitten gets picked up for a second season). So what better supernatural creatures to turn to than witches?
While there really hasn’t been a successful drama about witches on TV until American Horror Story: Coven, witches have fared a bit better in comedies like Bewitched and Sabrina, The Teenage Witch. Even the campy soap Passions had a witch as a main character, but prime time dramas have seen little success as shows like Eastwick and The Secret Circle barely made it through a single season (Lifetime’s Witches of East End seems to have bucked the trend and will be getting a second season). But TV executives keep trying to make witches the next big thing, and WGN (fondly remembered as Chicago’s Superstation) is launching its own slate of original programming with the new drama Salem.
Salem, naturally, takes place in Salem, MA just at the start of the witch hunts. A few citizens have been put to death for practicing witchcraft, but the residents of the colony are still fearful that dark things are afoot. In the pilot, we meet John Alden (Shane West) and Mary (Janet Montgomery). They’re not married, and John is sent off to war unaware that Mary is with child … a fact that no one in the town can know lest she face the consequences of being branded with an A on her forehead. With the help Tituba (Ashley Madekwe), she participates in a ritual in the woods that mysteriously removes the baby from her body.
Believing John to be dead, Mary marries Salem’s richest man, George Sibley (Michael Mulheren), but is stunned when John returns. What John doesn’t know is that Mary’s experience in the woods that night and her relationship with Tituba has drawn her into the world of witchcraft. Mary has cast a spell on George that has him incapacitated for the most part, and when a young girl becomes the target of demons, she nearly implicates Mary as the witch who brought the demons upon her. Instead, Mary uses her power to deflect the blame onto a man (Kevin Tighe) who knows all of her secrets … and he ends up crushed when he refuses to confirm or deny his involvement.
The town’s crusading witch hunter Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel) has the townspeople whipped into a frenzy as they believe anyone, including their friends and neighbors, could be practicing the dark arts. While Mather appears to be a holy crusader on the outside, he has a few secrets of his own, like “attending” to the less fortunate at a local house of ill repute. We’re also introduced to other characters like Magistrate Hale (Xander Berkeley), Mercy Lewis and Abigail Cook, all historical figures at the time of the witch hysteria (although the real Abigail’s last name was Williams).
The pilot episode quickly sets up the situation, but perhaps tips its hand too soon in revealing who in Salem are actively involved in witchcraft … and yes, the witchcraft in the story is very real, not the imagined hysteria of the real colonists attributed to isolationism and religious extremism. John is originally presented as the town’s skeptic, believing there are more earthly forces at work than supernatural, but it doesn’t take him long to see that there are darker forces in town when he witnesses some bizarre goings-on in the woods.
Early reviews of Salem have been tepid at best, but I found the pilot to be interesting enough to give it another shot. The fan base that Shane West brings from Nikita coupled with the Seth Gabel (Fringe) devotees should help make the show a success. The pilot is also handsomely produced, giving the town of Salem an appropriately 17th-century vibe (it’s also interesting to note how the town changes and grows over the seven years while John is away). The cast is a mixed bag of acting, from completely focused to gnawing on the scenery. Gabel gets to be the most over-the-top, but his Reverend Mather is supposed to be a complete zealot, so it works. He really brings some much needed sparks to the proceedings.
A television series is always hard to judge from its pilot, especially a completely new series where we have to get to know all of the character but at least we should know a bit about the historical basis for the plot. Some may cry foul that they play fast and loose with a terrible time in history for entertainment value, but this isn’t a documentary … and none of the participants are around to object. I found Salem to be entertaining and intriguing, much more serious than AHS: Coven ever was, with just enough weirdness to bring me back for more. For now, the show has me under its spell.