With Vampires, Ichabod Crane, Frankenstein and various other classic gothic tales making their way to television, it was about time a network brought the Salem Witch Trials to small screens, all with a modern twist.
That station turned out to be WGN America, whose first nationally broadcast original series “Salem” made its debut April 20. The result? The middling pilot set the show off to a decent start, while managing to raise far more questions than necessary and introducing a plethora of characters. It also threw down far more backstory than necessary for the first episode of a series.
The series begins seven years before the start of the witch trials, where we meet two people in the stockades, seemingly for having premarital sex, which is of course frowned upon by the Puritans living in Salem. Off the bat, the show goes for the jugular, showing vicious lashings and even a branding. We’re then introduced to those assumed to be our protagonists: John Alden and Mary are two lovers who are forced to hide their relationship considering the scene they just witnessed. John, who has been called to war, gives Mary half of a silver coin and promises to return for her in the most cliché scene of the entire episode.
After a time lapse of presumably nine months (we’re never told exactly how long), Mary is rushed into the woods where she prepares to give birth to John’s child. Things take a turn for the dark and bizarre when Tituba performs some type of unorthodox ritual and causes Mary to have a miscarriage, or something along those lines. We never find out what exactly happens to the child, we just know that one moment it was there, and the next it was not. Moments like this are scattered throughout the pilot, taking viewers aback and raising far more questions than necessary, none of which the show bothers to answer.
Flash forward seven years, and we find John returning to Salem, hoping to find Mary and whisk her off her feet. Things are quite different, however, and much, much darker. Mary is now married to Sibley and is a much different person than she was when John left. Much of the second half of the episode deals with John’s coping with the changed Mary until the final 10 or so minutes when the action escalates and the bar is raised.
Performance wise, the show is fairly strong. Shane West gives a strong performance as Alden, a character who seems to be holding a lot in, something that is more than understandable considering his time at war was surely traumatic. Seth Gabel also turns in a strong performance as Cotton Mather, the man who seems to be on the verge of leading the witch hunts. The only performance that seemed a bit off was that of Janet Montgomery, who plays Mary. Several times during the episode she seems to fully understand the material she’s working with, but seems lost and the performance feels like a desperate impersonation of Keira Knightly as Elizabeth Swan in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Momentum is a strong problem for the episode, which manages to find its footing several times throughout only to slip and lose it moments later. The episode starts on a strong foot, establishing the stakes, only to be bogged down for most of the next 45 minutes by expository details, trying to simultaneously cram in as much of the characters’ back stories as possible. While the episode starts and ends on high notes, its the material in the middle that was relatively slow.
From all other standpoints, though, the pilot episode certainly did its job of establishing what the show is and where it wants to go. There is no shortage of shocking moments, but at the same time these feel like a toned down version of the obscene violence, sex, and nudity for which “American Horror Story” is so infamous. That is not to say “Salem” lacks that, in fact it pushes the envelope of how much nudity can be aired on network television.
Overall, “Salem” does a mostly decent job of establishing what it wants to be and where it intends on going. With most shows winding down, it’s certainly worth a watch — but airing on Sunday nights, it’s not worth missing “Game of Thrones.”
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