Salem Season 2 Review “In Vain”

Salem Episode 3 In Vain (1)

In the latest episode of “Salem,” the show inched ever-closer to finding its voice, and if it’s still not quite getting there, at least I can say their efforts have not been completely “In Vain.” Ironically, even though the show was on point tonally for the first time ever, in terms of maintaining a certain vibe throughout the episode, neither was it quite as fun as the first two episodes, either. In other words, the previous episodes might have been all over the place, but they weren’t boring. “In Vain” stopped short of boring, to be sure, but it didn’t quite have a signature set of scenes like the first two.

I’d say I won’t soon forget the frog business and the Cotton Mather sex scene in the pilot episode, nor the children building mini-models of witch hangings, the severed hand thing, the body dump of the unworthy and of course, that stillborn baby scene with the demon hag. And, of course anything involving Mercy. All of that stuff was memorable and uniquely original and a little bit mental. In short, it made the show stand out, least of all with all the witchy competition on the small screen these last few years. There’s a lot to like about “Salem” and I’d hate to lose any of that.

That said, at the same time, the show was often so incredibly out-there to the point where you weren’t sure as a viewer whether they were trying to be darkly funny or even put a post-modern spin on things retroactively because of what we know now or be deadly serious and true to the period as many of us think of it, via things like “The Crucible.” Honestly, it seemed like it was trying to be all of the above.

While I admire going for it to a certain degree and not shying away from controversy, a la the FX show it was once supposed to be, “Salem” was nothing if not erratic those first few episodes. Yet, sometimes you’ve got to grab viewers early in order to hook them for later. The first two episodes did that effectively enough, yet they also left something to be desired, and I think with this episode, “Salem” finally started to nail down what it wanted to be, which is primarily a serious-minded drama that just happens to have supernatural elements.

The show certainly isn’t without a warped sense of humor, but it’s used sparingly and I think maybe they’ve wisely shied away from going too modernistic with it. In other words, it isn’t a campy show, nor is it tongue-in-cheek and winking at the audience. The humor comes more organically, the way good satire pinpoints the absurdities of a certain scenario that might not seem to have anything inherently funny about it. There’s nothing funny about killing innocent people, obviously, but it is sort of ridiculous to think in today’s day and age that people seriously believed in full-blown “Wicked Witch of the West”-style enchantresses back in the day.

“Salem” isn’t above having a little fun with that aspect of the situation, and more often than not, it doesn’t quite cross the line into self-parody. Did it come right up to the line, like when John kept tweaking Cotton by calling him “Harvard”? Maybe so. But it’s definitely not overplaying its hand as of yet, either, and that’s a good thing. Indeed, this episode played much more straight-forward than previous episodes, and if it was vaguely uneventful, it also worked better on the whole than the other two.

For instance, the opening wet dream from hell was erotic, creepy and menacing all at once, but it wasn’t laughable, which it could well have been. I did laugh at the infamous “Revelations” sex scene with Cotton and Gloriana in the first episode, which was the very definition of over the-top. But I thought the opening scene here was genuinely unnerving, and actually felt like what is was aiming for, a sexy dream gone horribly wrong, not unlike similar stuff in the movie “Black Swan.”

The first Isaac questioning scene was also suitably bizarre, and if the second one with Isaac’s ex, Abby, wasn’t anything we haven’t seen before- the evil witch playing on a character’s weaknesses to get information- it was fairly eerie, if not particularly scary. Truth be told, the aforementioned scenes notwithstanding, I don’t know that I have ever been scared by the show at any point, but that’s not saying much, as I’ve seen my fair share of the horror genre, so it takes some doing to really set me on edge.

In fact, I don’t know that “Salem” is even trying to actually scare people, so much as disquiet them on occasion by doing something left-of-center and beyond the norm, and in that, it’s succeeding more often than not. So, that’s saying something. There’s definitely room for improvement, to be sure. The pacing could be a bit swifter and the dialogue could stand a bit more zip to it (but not too much, mind you), but the show’s getting there, slowly but surely.

It remains to be seen whether it continues to improve, but for now, “Salem” is definitely on the right track, at least. Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess, but hopefully, it will continue to aim for the creepy over the kooky, as it were. In the meantime, it’s nothing if not watchable. Whether or not it’s “appointment TV” on the other hand, is up for debate, but it’s getting there. Here’s hoping they keep on doing what they’re doing the way they’re doing it, and don’t mess it up.

What did you think of “Salem” this week? Did you like this more slightly subdued version of the show, or did you like it more when it was a bit on the bat-sh*t crazy side? Do you think the show should try to be funnier, lighter? Or is the tone just right for your tastes? There are no wrong answers, but sound off below and I’ll see you next episode. Just stay out of my dreams, please, “Salem”!