WGN America enters the original programming game this week with Salem. Set in the town of the same name during the famous witch trials of the 1600s, it claims to be based on real events, though in the first hour, “The Vow,” it quickly becomes clear that what’s shown can only be true if you believe actual magic was present at that time and place. Still, it’s an interestingly built period piece, far more enjoyable that I expected.
As Salem begins, John Alden (Shane West, Nikita) goes off to war, leaving behind the backwards town of Salem, which is run by the cruel George Sibley (Michael Mulheren, Rescue Me). Years later, John returns to find the love who is supposed to be waiting for him, Mary (Janet Montgomery, Made in Jersey), married to Sibley and the town panicked by a witch invasion. To that end, Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel, Fringe) comes to help out, using his preacher’s pulpit to decry the dark arts.
One way Salem could go, would be to tell historical happenings as close as they can, letting paranoia and small-mindedness run the mood of the citizens. Instead, Salem chooses a different tact, immediately outing Mary to the viewers as a powerful witch. We don’t yet know how Mary became what she is, having seen her run off into the forest to try to get rid of John’s baby that she carried, then, years later, keeping Sibley under her command and palling around with the creepy Tituba (Ashley Madekwe, Revenge). We also don’t know if John’s return could possibly save her soul, which appears lost.
On one hand, I’m glad Salem does this. The machinations of the ladies with their spells and manipulations make for a driving story. We have Mary torn between what she is and what she used to be. Women of that time period often were not strong figures, and giving this power to them changes that. With real magic on the side of the witches, they have a fighting chance of persevering against the awful injustice that a handful of folks, Sibley chief among them, is reigning down on Salem. Plus, Salem is superior to some other recent witch-centered shows (Lifetime’s Witches of East End springs to mind).
On the other, this is sort of a bastardization of history. Many of the people, including John Alden, Cotton Mather, and Tituba, are actual figures, now being twisted in strange ways. Not to mention, the real events are intriguing enough, a cautionary tale of what happens when the population buys too far into superstition. Someone could make an incredibly complex character study on the emotional mindset of those involved, and how innocents might be taken down by lies and rumors.
But, Salem is what it is. It keeps the time period, which makes it different than most of the other supernatural series populating the airwaves, and adds its own elements. It has a pretty decent cast, with the actors, who have often been weak in other series, suited to the characters they are playing here. It looks neat, and the effects are well done. It also sets up a consistent tone and some simmering arcs that can play out over the course of the season or longer. It feels like the love child of AMC’s Turn and FOX’s Sleepy Hollow, but also has its own perspective.
I am not yet confident enough in the quality to truly recommend Salem as appointment television. But I am intrigued enough to set my TiVo to catch the next couple of episodes and see where it goes. Salem airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on WGN America.
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