TV Review: ‘Salem’

Salem Television Show WGN

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.

TV Review: 'Salem'

(Series; WGN America, Sun. April 20, 10 p.m.)

Production

Filmed in Louisiana by Beetlecod Prods., Prospect Park and Fox 21.

Crew

Executive producers, Brannon Braga, Adam Simon, David Von Ancken, Jeff Kwatinetz, Josh Barry; co-executive producer, Vahan Moosekian; director, Richard Shepard; writers, Braga, Simon; camera, Sarah Cawley; production designer, Michael Hanan; editors, Jo Francis, Carole Kravetz Aykanian, John Duffy; music, Tyler Bates; casting, Sheila Jaffe, Gail Goldberg. 60 MIN.

Cast

Janet Montgomery, Shane West, Seth Gabel, Xander Berkeley, Ashley Madekwe, Tamzin Merchant, Elise Eberle, Iddo Goldberg

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  1. George A says:

    I know the show is definitely the work of the writers. There is no historical accuracy. The names being used are actually of those who lived. However, based on the history of Salem, the ages of the people and their connections to witchcraft have been either exaggerated or made up. I would have expected the show to be more historically accurate to those who lived in Salem at the time. I understand that the supernatural “sells,” but out of respect of the Puritans, the characters should not have been given the names as in the story.

  2. Gordon Brenner says:

    this is a silly show which gives short shrift to the descendants of the persecuted “witches” by supporting the notion of the Puritans that there actually were witches in Salem instead of what it was just a generational meltdown by the city fathers who were in the final stages of the Puritan experiment in America which was an abject failure. Even with these Victoria Secret babes running around in non-Puritan black lace the inportance of the historical reality of the development of the separation of church and state into a full-blown democratic experiment is dismissed and made laughable by this show

  3. Sacha says:

    I love the show i must say….

  4. Gracie says:

    I was very disappointed in the premier of this show. I thought it would be a more historically accurate and more of a drama series & instead it is a supernatural horror show with a silly plot line.. Will not watch this show again.

  5. Howsyermum says:

    The woman on the leash says it all. This is an exercise in histrionics

  6. colleen says:

    I loved the premiere. In my eyes, a show that combines a horrific spin on reality, and a split opinion on history, gains my attention. Mary is beautiful, the priest is abundantly insane, and the creatures are insidious.

  7. One wonders who these men talked to (if anyone who actually researched this time period or the torture the real women endured at the hands of these Puritans) to put this travesty together. It’s more propaganda against ancient ways that most people, who will certainly want to see this show, will continue to believe that all witches are bad. Maybe they’d like to do a sequel about the Spanish Inquisition too? American Horror Story did enough damage!

    • KJ says:

      American Horror Story:Coven did not portray all witches as ‘bad’ or evil and certainly didn’t damage any reputations!

  8. James Franco says:

    Between Braga and the Fox 21 hive mind, there is zero industry surprise that this turned out to be a soulless hack-fest.

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