Witches have been a popular television staple since Elizabeth Montgomery first twitched her nose as Samantha Stevens on Bewitched in 1964. Since then there have been dozens of series about witches or featuring witches, and they range anywhere from the wholesome Sabrina, The Teenage Witch to the WB's more adult-themed Charmed, to the mostly unhinged drama of American Horror Story: Coven. Now joining those ranks is WGN America's first original scripted series Salem, a dark and twisty look at one of America's most infamous time periods.
Off the top of my head I can think of four on-going shows in addition to Salem that feature witches: The Vampire Diaries, The Originals, True Blood, and Witches of East End (a moment of silence for the fallen The Secret Circle, please). But whereas TVD usually relegates its resident witch to the sidelines in favor of vampires and love-triangles, and whereas Witches of East End focuses a bit too much on the soap for my liking, Salem straddles the boundaries between every day supernatural and horror. It treats its witches, including Janet Montgomery's leading lady Mary Sibley, as something dangerous. No one's getting turned into a newt, and no one's lighting candles with just a swish of their fingers. There's seriously dark magic at the center of the series, which can only be a good thing at this point. Even if I wasn't interested in Salem's main plot to destroy the Puritans, I'd still watch the show because it's the first series in a while that has witches that doesn't make me wonder where they got their witching license. American Horror Story's recent witch-centered season started out strong, but eventually fizzled into Ryan Murphy's patented brand of craziness. Salem is slow to start, but builds toward a climax at the end of the pilot that at least hints at a larger and darker story.
Driving most of the first episode, and I suspect much of the season, is the love story between Mary Sibley and John Alden (Shane West), who went to war in 1685 and returned seven years later to find the town in the grips of mass-hysteria. He's the most rational man in Salem at this point, hardened by the horrors of war, but what John doesn't know is that the sexy times he engaged in with Mary prior to leaving resulted in a pregnancy, and that Mary and her shady friend Tituba (Ashley Madekwe) performed a magical abortion in the woods that left Mary a different person in the aftermath. When John and his wig return in 1692, Mary has already married the richest asshole in town, George Sibley, and is also the most powerful witch in Salem, controlling much of what goes on with the steely resolve of a woman who's finally found her confidence in a male dominated society. I have no doubt that secret abortion will come back in to play later on this season, as Mary's trying her best to keep it quiet. She even went so far as to have the one person who knew about it (outside of Tituba) stoned for witchcraft. That night in the woods signaled not only a change in Mary's character, but also, I suspect, a change in the town, and might have been what brought magic and witchcraft to Salem.
The series' reliance on shocking and sometimes disgusting imagery works to sell the series' specific version of witchcraft. But beyond the old ladies munching on young women, people wearing bloody animal heads in the woods, and the toads living inside people to do their witch's bidding, there is an actual point to Salem, it just takes awhile to discover what it is. Mary and the other witches in town, including Xander Berkeley's Magistrate Hale, want to turn the witch-hating Puritans against one another to the point they'll destroy each other in their hysteria. They enlist Seth Gabel's Cotton Mather to lead the charge, which he does, not realizing he's a pawn in the witches' master plan.
Mary's agenda to destroy the Puritans who've persecuted her kind is an interesting twist to the infamous time period in American history, and it puts the power in the hands of women—something unheard of for the time period—but also in the hands of those our textbooks have taught us were wrongfully persecuted. This deviation from history will give birth to some interesting storylines down the road, I'm sure, but it does take the pilot an awfully long time to get this point. The revelation makes for a clever ending, but it also means viewers spend most of the pilot wondering WTF is happening, because so much is left unexplained until the episode's final moments. It felt like the series cared more about making viewers jump than it did about setting up the story for most of the hour. Truthfully, it makes sense for the series to keep its secrets close, slowly building this new world and carefully choosing when to reveal information, but it might not be enough for the casual viewer who wants answers quickly or who isn't keen on the supernatural and only came for a taste.
Salem has the makings of a fun, exciting, and horrifying journey and it was wise of WGN America to choose this particular series to launch their scripted programming slate rather than Manhattan, its series about the 1940s and the birth of the atomic bomb. Following the success of Fox's Sleepy Hollow, the popularity of genre television is certainly on the rise and Salem is original enough to stand out and interesting enough to make viewers want to return to it, but the series will need to make a more conscious effort to dole out answers if it wants to retain its audience. Creepy imagery only gets you so far, and I wish WGN America had sent out more than just the pilot so I could have gotten a better feel for the overall tone and stability of the series, but as it stands, the Salem pilot is just creepy enough and gives out just the right amount of information for a tantalizing taste that leaves viewers wanting more. It will be interesting to watch how John, a man who's essentially an outsider in his hometown after being away for so long (and thus the audience stand-in), slowly discovers and uncovers the truth about his former lover and the town he's returned to. But it will be even more interesting to watch how this twisted version of events plays out over the course of the next nine episodes. It'd be super cool if the show kept the toad swallowing to a minimum, though. That crap was gross.