Just so you know, I’ve seen things; terrible, horrible, unforgettable things on television in the years I’ve been watching, but WGN America’s Salem is showing me a new, and undiscovered frontier. Visually ambitious and psychologically disturbing, Salem is reimagining the American witch-panic in a horror-movie-style drama that is guaranteed to disturb even the most seasoned TV viewers.
The story is familiar for anybody who took eleventh-grade English and was forced to sit through a dry, monotone
reading of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (or anybody who saw the 1996 movie adaptation with Wynonna Ryder). Also, you might remember that the story was framed as an allegory for religious zealotry and an indictment of the Puritanical system, meant to warn readers of the perils of
spiritual indoctrination. But WGN is not going the figurative route and makes the witchcraft a very real presence in the show. Marketing with the phrase, “Witches are real,” we are meant to take the ideas of possession, hexing, spellcasting and shapeshifting very seriously. But this show leaves you with little choice in the matter. It takes itself very seriously in its storytelling and doesn’t indulge in any bits of camp like other witch shows of the moment (True Blood, AHS: Coven, Witches of East End) and it might suffer for it. Some of the characters (looking at you Mary Sibley) seem incongruous alongside others, and the chemistry between the players is lackluster, for now at least. However, it is a frightening reboot of a familiar story, and approaches the legend with fresh eyes, and I do appreciate that.
The first moments of the pilot take place in 1685, but when the episode jumps forward seven years, the witches Tituba and Mary Sibley (Ashley Madekwe and Janet Montgomery) reap the benefits of a pact made with the devil in exchange for a favor rendered. In 1692-Salem Mary and Tituba have become the leaders in a very powerful coven that holds members from the most prestigious families in town. They secretly manage the town, including the witchcraft trials and orchestrate the merciless and vicious witch hunt raging Salem. Mary’s long, lost love John Alden (Shane West) returns from the French/Indian war a hardened cynic and scoffs at the belief of the supernatural forces at work. He isn’t privy to all the audience can see or else he would believe just like we are supposed to.
At the spiritual helm of the witch-panic is Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel), a twitchy lunatic, Cotton is the reverend to which the town turns to when cases of possession and the occult are reported by young women and their families, specifically Mercy Lewis in the episode 1. Like I said before, I have seen a lot during my time as a TV watcher, but there is a sequence in this week’s episode that is visually shocking, even to me. The pilot features the story of the young girl Mercy, that has been visited by “the old hag,” the apparition of a scary old witch that feeds on the younger girl. Cotton thinks he can discern the identities of the other witches in the town and uses Mercy as a guide, thinking she can lead them to the witch that visited her. Cotton straps the girl into an apparatus that is so medieval and savage in its construction, that she looks inhuman. Wearing a leather vest and harness, a steel muzzle over her face and hooked to a ten foot, fixed lead, she pulls him along on all fours. I was transfixed at the loss of humanity of the character. I have included a trailer for the season below and there are hints of this scene in the two-minute preview, but it is worth watching at least the pilot to get a sense of what I mean. Truthfully, though, I could go on for another dozen paragraphs describing the visual maelstrom I experienced during this hour, but I hope you will check it out yourself.
As for the show itself, well, it has its problems. Without the subtext and allegory inherent in the original Puritan story, the show reads a little too on-the-nose, and may not have enough substance in storytelling to sustain itself. It seems like it may have to rely too heavily on its cinematography and beautiful scenery, which is not altogether a bad thing, but can get problematic when thinking about future season. Also, (and this might be me splitting hairs) the dialogue is INSANELY anachronistic. Alden utters phrases like, “I call bullshit” and “the facts of life” and it completely jolts me out of the Salem universe and into a universe where I am laughing at the characters (and I think I’ve already established they don’t really want that). It seems a little lazy, and further, I think I would rather contend with the “thees” and “thous” than the mash-up of vernaculars.
I’ll concede that it is very hard to get a good read about a show from only its pilot, so I am content with demon-
orgies, frogs suckling from leg-nipples and characters biting their own fingers off until the writers can sort out all the problem-areas. There is a lot of room for Salem to join the conversations about sexuality, gender, religion, class and race. Whether or not it will, remains to be seen.
Here is a two-minute trailer that gives a good peek at some of the points I metioned above. Let me know what you think.
You can also read weekly recaps here at EW’s The Community.