Salem Season 1 Review “The Vow”

Salem (WGN) Series Premiere 2014 The Vow03

“Salem,” the little witch show that could, was originally intended for the FX network, but was jettisoned when “American Horror Story”-creator Ryan Murphy revealed that the latest season of that show would be centered on that very subject matter. Arguably their best season yet, “AHS” is a tough act to follow, to be sure, but “Salem” can rest easier knowing that their show is nothing like that show whatsoever, stylistically or otherwise.

WGN, looking to expand their brand beyond sporting events and reruns of syndicated shows, picked up the show instead, and those disappointed that “AHS” went the mostly modern route with their witches will be happy to find that “Salem” is strictly old-school, albeit with a decidedly modern undertaking that make it no wonder the likes of FX were interested. As with most of FX’s original dramatic output, this features intense violence, grisly scenarios and even a fair bit of nudity and sex. So, don’t count on it being shown in school to illustrate the Salem Witch Trials for history class, to say the least.

One thing “Salem” does share with “AHS” beyond subject matter is that it uses actual historical figures as its characters, albeit here in their proper era, circa the late 1600’s. Among them is the Reverend Cotton Mather, in from Boston to aid Salem in ousting the plague of witches on the land, who he says won’t rest until they have a “country of their own.”

The first to be outright accused is another real-life figure, Giles Corey (Kevin Tighe, of “Lost”), who was indeed killed by having stones placed on his chest until he couldn’t breathe, aka “peine forte et dure” or “pressing,” after he refused to plead guilty or not guilty to the charges at hand of witchcraft. In real life, the torture actually lasted two days!

Here, it’s a relatively swift process for effect, as the man is a friend of the lead character, Captain John Alden (Shane West, of “ER”), also grounded in fact, as he was a direct descendant of a couple on the Mayflower, among the first to land on Plymouth Rock. Corey knows something he shouldn’t about Alden- that he was expecting a child with one of the most powerful women in town, Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery, “Entourage”) when he left for war, and she had the child taken away, by less-than-savory means.

Namely, witchy ones, courtesy of yet another real-life historical figure: the mysterious Tituba (Ashley Madekwe, of “Revenge”), a mixed-race slave who was among the first to be accused of witchcraft in real-life. Here, she’s working alongside Mary, as her closest confidant and go-between to the real-deal witch haunting Salem, who I think is called Kenaima, but who may be the Devil himself. (“AHS” fans will recall Tituba being mentioned a few times, notably as Queenie’s ancestor.)

There’s also the Hale family, who I didn’t find any historical antecedents for. Magistrate Hale (Xander Berkeley, of “24”) is a secret supporter of the witches and has an out-of-the-loop devout Christian wife. He also has a feisty daughter, Anne (Tamzin Merchant, of “The Tudors”), who may have designs on John, which will likely make the latter a target of Mary’s, who warns her against the perils of love in this episode, comparing a woman with an impending child to a soldier in the war, and how both are deadly in their own way. I guess she would know!

The show is scheduled to run for ten episodes, making it function a bit like a mini-series. Hopefully, it will have a fixed, but open ending, just in case there isn’t a second season. As it stands, it’s off to a decent start, with some attention-getting effects, notably a bit involving a frog that serves as Mary’s “familiar” (and which she hides in a decidedly interesting location) and a (black) Sabbath rite, involving an orgy of sorts with the participants all covered in tar and others bearing the heads of slaughtered animals.

Indeed, animals do not fare well here, so beware, animal lovers, and consider yourself warned. When a frog has it better than a dove, it’s time to leave town, I should think. (Okay, so his place of residence isn’t great, but at least he gets to snuggle with a naked hottie.) Whatever the case, it makes for some startling imagery, as do scenes involving Mary hovering just above the bed, frozen in an odd pose; and a potentially possessed Salem denizen, Mercy (Elise Eberle, of “Lemonade Mouth”), who at one point jumps up on the ceiling and in another scene is walked through town by Cotton on a leash like a rabid dog, in order to identify the cause of her bedevilment.

It’s Mary who sets Mercy upon poor Giles, in fact, ultimately leading to his death, in order to preserve her secret about having carried John’s baby. That scene, with Giles crushed by rocks is pretty effective, too; as is an early scene with John returning to town after seven years to find a group of hanged men greeting him, as seen in the above picture.

Another scene, with Cotton wailing on a prostitute, Gloriana (Azure Parsons, of “2 Guns”), from behind while shouting out quotes from the Book of Revelations is also something to see. I’m not sure what to say about it, but it was something, alright! Apparently, the not-so-good Reverend has his vices as well, including the odd libations.

So, my guess would be, either this is going to be your cup of tea right off the bat or it isn’t. For those who thought “AHS” was a bit too modern and tongue-in-cheek for its own good, but still like the thought of a witch-based show, this should be right on the money- unless they’re easily offended or grossed out, that is. I do think it’s possible some might wander into watching this expecting something a bit more staid, considering the network and, in that case, they will probably check right back out, because this is definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Kudos to WGN for aiming high- or low, as the case may be seen by some- but “Salem” is nothing if not as ambitious as any given FX or AMC show. It might prove a bit too much for some, but for those who don’t mind a little bit of the old ultra-violence and a bit of the old in-out-in-out, it should do the trick nicely. Watch out for those frogs, though- they’ve got a mean bite!