April 20, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Salem”


SALEM:  Sunday 10PM on WGN America – If Nothing Else Is On…

There’s more than vanity to the desire of just about every cable network to have at least one original scripted series (although that’s part of it).  There’s also a clear dollar and cents value to original scripted programming, which pays off in increased viewer loyalty, more desirable demos, higher rates paid by advertisers, and most important of all, hiked subscription fees paid by cable operators for the network.  It’s less clear why so many cable networks feel the need to go head-to-head on Sunday nights, but that continues to be the case, and tonight’s new entrant is WGN America (which used to be the local Chicago station WGN, and then became a nationally carried “superstation”) and its inaugural series SALEM.

To the good fortune of the world in general, Salem isn’t the life story of your humble reviewer.  Instead, it concerns exactly the time and place you’d expect with that title, the Massachusetts Witch Trials of the late 17th century.  After a prologue in which young Mary (Janet Montgomery) undergoes some kind of supernatural abortion at the hands of Tituba (Ashley Madekwe), to rid herself of the out-of-wedlock baby she’s carrying because the unknowing father, John Alden (Shane West), is about to head off to war, the main action takes place in 1692.  Alden, who thought he’d only be gone for a year but was taken prisoner, has just returned to Salem, only to find that while he was gone, Mary married rich, elderly George Sibley (Michael Mulheren), and is now the most powerful woman in town.  All is not peaceful in Salem:  the apparent possession of local girl Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle) has given rise to the conviction that there are witches about.

Salem wants to have its cake and eat it on the subject of the Witch Trials.  Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel) is a Puritan fanatic who tortures the innocent to death and works out his sexual excitement from examining Mercy with local whore Gloriana (Azure Parsons).  But there’s a real enough coven, composed of Mary, Tituba, and Hale (Xander Berkeley), the local magistrate.  They’ve sold their souls to the devil (or some facsimile thereof), they bring supernatural creatures up from the bog outside town at their Sabbaths, and Mary stores a frog inside her husband who keeps him incapacitated and feeds on her blood.  (No, really.)  The idea seems to be that the coven will misdirect Mather and his fellow Puritans to the wrong suspects, as they do in the pilot, causing Mather to kill a trapper (guest star Kevin Tighe) who witnessed Mary’s abortion 7 years earlier and has threatened to tell Alden the truth.

Salem has a stalwart cast of TV regulars (among their recent credits, Montgomery starred in Made In Jersey, both West and Berkeley were on Nikita, Gabel was featured on Fringe, and Madekwe was on Revenge), and the pilot makes clear the network’s intention to stand on the FX end of the content spectrum rather than USA’s, with some strong horror imagery and near-nudity.  But a network stepping into the original series game these days needs to aim for distinctiveness–think AMC and Mad Men, FX and The Shield, Netflix and Orange Is the New Black, BBCAmerica and Orphan Black–and everything about Salem is familiar or worse.  The pilot script by series creators Brannon Braga and Adam Simon (Braga is a veteran of many Star Trek iterations, while Simon co-wrote the low-budget feature The Haunting in Connecticut) has little in the way of a compelling storyline or characters, and the dialogue is often stilted and sometimes anachronistic.  Director Richard Shepard, another old TV hand (his pilots include Ringer, Golden Boy and Ugly Betty) allows for a fair amount of overacting, and never gives the pilot a notable visual style.

With witches all over television, from American Horror Story to The Originals to Sleepy Hollow (the latter even features early American covens), Salem would have had to bring something very special to the table to make a mark, and nothing in the pilot suggests that it has the goods.  Similarly, Sundays are so clogged with first-rate programming that only the very best can hope to break through.  The potential good news for WGN America is that its next series, launching during the summer, at least has a more original premise: Manhattan will tell the story of the development of the nuclear bomb in Los Alamos, territory it might find easier to claim as its own. Salem‘s spell, so far, is all too easy to ignore.

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."