April 28, 2014

THE SKED Pilot + 1 Review: “Salem”


SALEM:  Sunday 10PM on WGN America

A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on SALEM:  In the late 17th century, the town of Salem had a fanatical witch hunter in the person of Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel), but also a coven of very real witches, headed by the town’s most powerful woman, Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery), along with Tituba (Ashley Madekwe) and town magistrate Hale (Xander Berkeley).  Mary was once deeply in love with John Alden (Shane West), but when he went off to war against the Indians and, captured for years, was believed dead, she aborted his child with the help of otherworldly forces, and married (and has hexed) the richest man in town; now John is back, stirring up old feelings and threatening the coven.  Meanwhile, the possessed Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle) has convinced Mather to start trials of suspected witches, and Mary is determined to manipulate the proceedings via Mercy in order to keep Salem safe for witches and whatever the creatures are that she and the rest of the coven are bringing up from the ground at their witches’ Sabbaths.  The last Sabbath was disrupted when John and his friend Isaac (Iddo Goldberg) came onto the scene, but since the participants were masked, their identities are still hidden.

Episode 2:  There was plenty of incident and lots of disturbing, portentous imagery in the 2d episode of Salem, written by series creators Brannon Braga and Adam Simon and directed by David Von Ancken, but little to make the drama more involving.  We learned that Mary needs the death of ten innocents by a particular phase of the moon in order to achieve some next level of hellish power, which will allow the coven to claim Salem as its own.  Her plan is to have Mather commit the actual killings by making Mercy point to each innocent as a witch and cause their execution.  In the pilot, a friend of John’s was crushed to death by stones, and in tonight’s episode, it was a blameless midwife who’d delivered a stillborn baby to a prostitute who was hung.  The midwife was a close friend of Magistrate Hale’s daughter Anne (Tamzin Merchant), and the combination of Anne’s challenge to the court’s decision and her evident attraction to John has made her Mary’s target, which meant the stitching of some kind of devil doll to keep watch on the girl.

Meanwhile, Mary and Hale tried to track down whoever had crashed their Sabbath, which required the use of a dead lizard.  Other creepy sights included Mary squeezing a mouse of its blood for inclusion in the cursed doll, a severed hand found at the Sabbath’s site that oozed insects, Mary stuffing the hexed frog into her husband’s mouth that keeps him semi-comatose, and Mercy “proving” the midwife a witch by vomiting up a torrent of blood and nails on her in church–not to mention the very explicit hanging sequence that followed.

The visuals were arresting, but the dialogue is still flat, and the characters declaim their lines in a way that feels more clumsy than period-accurate.  There’s little magnetism between Mary and John, and the only character with any spark is Anne Hale, while everyone else just looks glumly determined.  The potentially interesting idea of an alliance between Alden and Mather went nowhere because Mather is, as depicted here, just too crazy to be any kind of friend to the relatively level-headed Alden.

On CW alone, witches are casting more interesting spells every week on what seems like half of the network’s line-up, and while Salem is a bit more violent, its storylines aren’t nearly as compelling and its characters are far less attractive.  Salem got off to a decent start in the ratings last week–with no previous original programming on WGN America, there’s no precise measure of comparison–but the results over the next few weeks, now that the marketing blitz is over, will tell whether the show has truly bewitched viewers in substantial numbers.  Competing on a night so crammed with strong drama that DVR limits are tested weekly, Salem‘s powers just don’t seem potent enough.

ORIGINAL VERDICT:  If Nothing Else Is On…

PILOT + 1:  A Hex Upon Its Scripts


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."