‘Salem’ review: Everything old is newish again in premiere episode

04.18.14 5 years ago 6 Comments

There are many striking things about Salem (premieres Sun. April 20 at 10:00 p.m. on WGN). There is a surplus of gross and gory stuff, plenty of Puritans, and some of the most anachronistic dialogue I've ever heard in a period drama. Apparently the writers decided that the best way to capture the olde time speake of the 17th century is in cliches like “you can't keep a good man down,” “he's a chip off the old block,”  “he fights like a girl” and my favorite, “I call bullshit!” Yes, someone really says “I call bullshit,” I kid thee not.

Of course, it doesn't help that every actor (and, by extension, every character) seems to be operating on the belief he or she is in an entirely different project than the one they're in. As John Alden, Shane West (“Nikita”) swaggers through Salem with plenty of snappy one-liners and an attitude ripped from a '60s spaghetti Western, while Janet Montgomery (“Human Target”) might be more comfortable at “Downton Abbey.” Seth Gabel as real-life minister Cotton Mather seems to have the most fully fleshed-out character and rips into the role of a squirrelly and insecure man of God with considerable zeal. Unfortunately, Mather is also one of the more disagreeable characters on the show. 

Because the concept is that Salem was rife with witches, the story has plenty of bloody, graphic scenes that are indisputably gruesome but not necessarily scary. Unlucky residents swing from the gallows, one is branded, one is crushed, and a possessed woman bites off her own finger. Everyone appears to need a bath, so at least it all feels historically accurate. Oh, and there's a demon orgy, which mostly looks like a lot of people rolling around in motor oil. 

It's not pretty when the Devil and other bloody demons keep popping up to get it on with tortured souls, but dramatic tension usually stems from us being invested in at least one or two characters. Mary and John are the star-crossed lovers at the core of the story, but they don't exactly set off sparks. 

That being said, it all looks great. Lots of candlelight, amazing sets, and charming touches like lizards with their eyes sewn shut and blood-covered people wearing pig and deer heads. If nothing else, the set designer and cinematographer for “Salem” are worth every penny. 

Less impressive is whatever spin the show is trying to put on the hypocrisy of the Puritans elite and the way the witch panic was used to control wealth and freedom during the 17th century. There's opportunity for parallels to our modern era, but, with dialogue seemingly ripped from old magazines, I don't have much hope for complex thought or subtext.

Midway through the first episode, we discover the identity of one witch in such a way that suggests there could be an intriguing backstory saved for future episodes, so there's a possibility that this first shot may suffer from the weakness many pilots do. It's tasked with mashing together disparate genres and easing actors toward a middle ground that makes some kind of sense. Given the quality of the cast — Xander Berkeley and Ashley Madekwe stand out as talents who are usually better than their material — there's a chance that good acting will serve as sufficient distraction from the cornball dialogue, and a few more twists and turns in the plot could yield drama. The problem is that “Salem” ultimately suffers from a surplus of competition.

Flip through the channels, and it's easy to find mom witches (“Witches of East End”), sleek witches (“The Originals”) and camp witches (“American Horror Story: Coven”). Adding the Puritan angle to the mix certainly doesn't sex up familiar territory, even if it does add historical context, and the gory stuff will feel familiar to anyone who just finished watching “Coven.” With an idea that doesn't feel exactly groundbreaking, the basic elements of story and character needed more development before WGN pushed this one onto the stage.

Of course, it's not as if anyone ever seems to overdose on vampire-themed entertainment, so bring on the witches. 

Are you going to watch “Salem”? 

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