Salem Season 1 Review “Survivors”

Salem Episode 4 Survivors (6)

Thankfully, the latest episode of “Salem” managed to solidify its tone from last week, with “Survivors.” That’s an apt title, as the show has already been given the go-ahead for a second season after a mere handful of episodes, this being the fourth. Granted, it’s the WGN’s flagship show in the original programming game, but that hardly meant its fate was sealed from the jump.

Plus, with all the witch overload as of late (“American Horror Story,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “The Originals,” et al.), there was always the chance that viewers were growing weary of the subgenre, but obviously, that’s not the case here. I kind of get that, especially as none of the current shows are primarily focused on the past, as “Salem” firmly is. I think that “novelty” is what is causing viewers to tune in, and the quality of the show is what’s keeping them watching.

Yes, yes, the show got off to a shaky start, there’s no denying that. “Salem” was pretty clearly unsure of what it wanted to be early on, barreling relentlessly between serious historical fiction grounded in fact to borderline campy high-jinks with some occasionally dubious dialogue. It also tried way too hard to be “hip” and provocative, with button-pushing sexuality and over-the-top grotesqueries, of the sort FX traffics in- a network which it was once intended for before “AHS” stole their thunder, witch-wise.

The good news is that the show quickly righted itself, jettisoning much of the camp and settling on an overall more serious tone. Even so, “Salem” occasionally gets off a sly line or two, and the writing was actually pretty solid this time around. I liked the snarky, perfectly-pitched delivery from actress Tamzin Merchant, as the lovely daughter of town magistrate Hale, Anne, when she explained her presence at a local get-together as such: “One can’t pass up the rare gathering in Salem that doesn’t involve a noose and an angry mob.” Well-played, “Salem.”

I also appreciated the amusing retort to Hale that John Alden gave, when he tried to play Alden for a fool. “I underestimated you. You are full of far more sh*t than I thought possible.” Yes, actor Shane West plays his role a bit more modern than he should, I’ll allow that. I still have flashbacks to his roles on “Nikita” and “ER,” despite how radically different his look is, and he does occasionally come off as a young man playing at being a grown-up.

But it somehow works for me, despite that. I think maybe it’s just that he seems to be the only one in on the joke- just as his character is the only one able to see through all the aforementioned bullsh*t going on in this town. West stops short of out and out winking at the audience, though he treads mighty closely at times, but thus far, at least, he’s managed to keep his performance from going completely off-the-rails while perilously skirting the edge enough just to keep things interesting. That’s a pretty neat trick, and not an easy one to maintain, so it will be interesting to see how well West grows into the role, and if he can do so without losing his edge.

Meanwhile, arguably the strongest work on the show is being done by “Fringe”-vet Seth Gabel as Cotton Mather, and Azure Parsons, as Gloriana, the local prostitute he’s so clearly in love with. Their scenes together generate some real sparks and are the show’s best exploration of the social mores of the time and how people were struggling with their very real passions and desires while trying to remain respectable members of a puritanical society. Parsons may have been stuck in bit parts and thankless roles in the likes of “Leprechaun’s Revenge” before this, but she’s got real fire as an actress and the erotic tension between her and Gabel is palatable. That’s something you can’t fake, and to me, their scenes ring truest.

What priest doesn’t struggle with such things, even in this day and age, where celibacy isn’t as much in the mix as it used to be? You can definitely feel the pain of Mather’s situation- and his need to extricate himself from it, lest it come down directly on Gloriana’s head- even if it means hurting her feelings in the process. Better that than sentencing her to death for being a witch-like temptress of Satan, am I right? I don’t think things are going to end well for these two, but for now, they’re the best thing on “Salem.”

On a similar, if completely opposite front, while John and Mary don’t generate much in the way of sizzle for me, John and Anne do. They’re like the meet-cute couple of “Salem,” you know what I mean? Every time they’re together, you halfway expect some emo ballad to play like it would if this show were on the CW. The budding romance could easily be grating- as it often is on CW shows- but here it works. Of course, with Mary still carrying a torch, it probably won’t end well, either.

Janet Montgomery’s Mary is a tricky one. On the one hand, I have no problem buying her as a crafty, diabolical witch that is not to be messed with. On the other, she and West have, like, zero chemistry together, even in the pilot when they were actually a couple and he was making promises to her before leaving to go to war. They just don’t go together well, which is a problem if you’re supposed to be rooting for that to happen eventually.

It’s certainly not that Montgomery isn’t attractive- she’s smoking hot, in fact, which is saying something, considering what she was called on to do in her nude scene earlier this season- but in playing the evil side of Mary too convincingly, it makes it so much harder to root for the more loving one, that would do anything for her man, even if it ends up screwing up everything’s she’s working for, witch-wise.

I suppose it could be seen as a scenario where the evil side has taken too much root after all these years for there to be much of a good side left at all, but really, I think it’s just a mismatch in terms of the actors and their respective parts. It’s just odd that West has such great, sweet-natured chemistry with Merchant and next-to-nothing with Montgomery. Go figure.

The other part of the show that needs a bit of tweaking is the horror element. Horror is red-hot right now, especially on television, where it is easily outclassing what’s up on the silver screen. What sets apart a “Walking Dead” or an “American Horror Story” is that, while the acting is generally first-rate, the shows don’t forget to bring the scary, either. “Salem” has definitely had its moments- that bit with the frog in the pilot was an attention-grabber, to be sure- but I don’t know that I’ve ever really been creeped out by it, which is a problem.

Of course, I grew up on a steady diet of horror movies, so it might take a bit more for me than the average viewer, admittedly. Still, that doesn’t mean the show should stop trying to intensify the spooky stuff. For me, the closest it’s come to being scary is with the Mercy character, particularly the scenes where she’s singling people out as witches and the possession stuff. The former is when the show comes closest to nailing the eternal fear people living in that time must have had for their lives in the height of witch hysteria, and the latter works probably because “The Exorcist” has always been one of my fave horror flicks and possession is such an inherently freaky thing. But is the show genuinely scary? Not really.

The good thing is, it doesn’t necessarily have to be to be entertaining. And in this case, “Salem” is an engaging watch, at the very least, so it’s got that going for it. It remains to be seen where it will go with all of this, and if it will remain engaging, but for now… “Salem” is reasonably bewitching enough to keep this viewer watching, and that’s something.

What did you think of “Salem” this week? Happy with the way the show is proceeding? Who are your favorite characters? What do you think of the cast? What about their chemistry? Could the show be scarier, or do you find it suitably chill-inducing? Make the sign of the witch below in the comment section, and try not to get blood on your keyboards!