Marking WGN’s concerted foray into original series, “Salem” wants to have it both ways. This late-17th-century dive into the Salem, Mass., witch trials paints the Puritans as hypocritical scolds, yet also embraces the notion that there really were witches operating at the time, which makes their capital punishments seem a little less crazed and paranoid — never mind that it runs counter to the rather more dull historical record and lessons learned about the true nature of witch hunts. Mostly, this basic-cable drama plays like a rather flat supernatural soap, despite the lush period trappings.
While generally lacking in distinguishing characteristics, “Salem” does push boundaries by experimenting with just how much nudity can be displayed without actually showing genitalia (kudos to whoever had the job of gluing on those strands of hair).
Created by Brannan Braga (a veteran of various “Star Trek” reboots) and Adam Simon, the series certainly doesn’t break any new ground, although those with a modest memory of the history will probably be intrigued at first to hear names like Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel) bandied about.
The story opens with Mary (British actress Janet Montgomery) faced with an unwanted and — given the unyielding laws regarding fornication — potentially fatal pregnancy, courtesy of her lover, John Alden (Shane West). A pact with a sorceress (“Revenge’s” Ashley Madekwe) resolves her problem, but as we can see when the story flashes seven years ahead, the innocent Mary we initially met has been sacrificed along with the child.
Alden, inevitably, saunters back into town after years at war, complicating life for the now-married Mary, whose powers are certainly formidable, even if it’s not clear to what end they’re being used. Meanwhile, the witch-hunting Mather is crusading against this sulfurous threat, even if — like some prominent modern-day religious leaders — he doesn’t always practice what he preaches.
Although the show establishes some mystery about the depth and nature of the coven — and fills out the cast with interesting players, including Xander Berkeley as the local magistrate — this is an awfully familiar brew. And even if there’s enough here to merit a charitable second look, the series will likely be operating on a short leash.
Perhaps that’s because “Salem” flies into view at a moment where there’s a glut of period cable fare, which makes this less of a branding opportunity for WGN than what feels like a me-too exercise (heck, even History got there first), emulating some of AMC or FX’s less-prestigious entries.
So while “Salem” isn’t bad, necessarily, it doesn’t conjure any magic, either. By that measure, assuming WGN is committed to becoming an original-series player, the channel should keep the cauldron warm.