April 6, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Premiere Review: “Salem”


SALEM:  Sunday 10PM on WGNAmerica

SALEM, WGNAmerica’s first original scripted series, developed into an enjoyably gonzo exercise in old-time witchy horror during the course of its first season, more than willing to stretch the envelope of acceptable gore and sex on basic cable.  (The network’s follow-up, the prestige project Manhattan, was a much more sedate piece of historical fiction.)  After a big premiere, it settled down to modest ratings–albeit far higher than Manhattan‘s–that were more than enough to justify a renewal on the fledgling network.

The series, created by Brannon Braga and Adam Simon, takes the position that although innocent people were burned at the stake as witches in 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, in fact the town was crammed full of actual witches who were instrumental in orchestrating the unjust executions, as part of an elaborate ritual that required the deaths of innocents to claim the town for themselves.  Their leader is Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery), who has her own star-crossed past, having been in love with John Alden (Shane West), long believed dead after he went off to war against the local Indian tribes, which led Mary to sacrifice her soul to the devil and marry an evil old man whom she’s silenced by means of a spell, all so she can exercise his power on the town council.  John arrived back in town when the series began, and had re-sparked his feelings for Mary… up until the point where he found out she was a witch.  One of the climactic revelations of Season 1 was that her son with Alden, whom she thought had been given up to the devil when she became a witch, was in fact born and is still alive (now played by Oliver Bell), although possessed in some as-yet unexplained way by the “elders,” the witches who raised him and who are now using him as leverage over Mary to make sure she completes the ritual.  Mary also has to deal with a new cult headed by Mercy (Elise Eberle), an ambitious young witch who was once Mary’s creature but who is now after her job as Salem’s Witch #1, and yet another newly-formed witch, Anne (Tamzin Merchant), who was born with witch blood and is just–very reluctantly, between suicide attempts–learning her own strength.

The Season 2 premiere, written by Braga and Simon, and directed by Nick Copus, was mostly a table-setter for the episodes to come.  The tail end of last season had killed off two of the show’s strongest actors in Stephen Lang and Xander Berkeley, so the hour introduced two new major recurring characters:  a doctor played by Stuart Townsend, and a European countess super-witch played by Lucy Lawless.  Both will complicate things for Mary, since the doctor is trying to cure the pox that Mary brought down on Salem in order to kill off the local civilians, and the countess is clearly ruthless.  (One of the notable scenes in the premiere had her drowning a minion by remote control,  emptying the contents of her bathtub into him while he stood helplessly beside it.)  Meanwhile, Alden was being dosed with a dollop of Native American magic so that he could take back the town from Mary and her coven, even at the potential cost of his own life.  And Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel), exiled–temporarily–back to Boston after the death of his father, was doing what he does best, drowning his sorrows in prostitutes and self-pity.  The hour ended with Mercy’s crew killing the elders and explicitly declaring a war against Mary.

There’s no subtlety to Salem, and that’s its charm:  its characters scowl at each other and speak in B-movie declarative dialogue, indulging in periodic blood-soaked hijinks.  Eyeballs are ripped out of heads, bodies are rotting or burned, and camera angles barely obscure the nakedness of one star or another so we know this isn’t HBO.  Lawless seems like a good addition to this group, although Townsend is so far stuck in the dull “man of science” role.  Salem isn’t as well-plotted as some of its supernatural brethren on TV, nor as gleefully over the top (or gorgeously produced) as Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, but it’s a pleasantly distracting hour that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Its return may not be the answer to a spell, but it’s not a curse.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."