By Curt Wagner, @ShowPatrol
8:43 AM CDT, April 18, 2014
Witches are out for revenge in "Salem," WGN America's retelling of the occult panic that swept 17th century Massachusetts and led to the infamous Salem witch trials.
But don't expect this new drama (9 p.m. Sunday, WGN America; 2.5 stars out of four) to be another allegorical tale about Puritan hypocrisy, closed-mindedness and repression or the dangers of a mob mentality. In the Salem of executive producers Brannon Braga and Adam Simon, witches are stirring up paranoia and fear to turn the townfolk against each other.
There's nothing wrong with WGN America, for its first foray into original scripted programming, tapping the popularity of supernatural TV. And "Salem" is your standard horror fest, complete with haggish demons, pig's-head-wearing seance participants and ceiling-walking, possessed women. There's a nifty trick involving a man in a wheelchair, a frog and Janet Montgomery's naked body, but that's about the extent of the haven't-seen-it-before content in the first hour.
The story begins in 1685 as minister George Sibley (Michael Mulheren) has two townspeople whipped for "committing the sin of self-pollution." John Alden (Shane West) challenges Sibley's literal interpretations of the Bible when he sears an "F"—for fornicator—into the man's forehead.
Not long after, Alden leaves Salem to fight in the Indian Wars, leaving his beloved Mary (Montgomery) to deal with her secret pregnancy on her own. Actually, she gets help from slave girl Tituba (Ashley Madekwe), who uses some reproductive voodoo to get rid of the baby. This act becomes Mary's gateway into witchery and fuels her desire to get even with her Puritan neighbors.
Seven years later, Alden returns to Salem in the midst of the witch panic being whipped up by the town's new minister, Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel). Mary has married another man, but Alden's return stirs up old feelings and makes her doubt the path Tituba has set her on.
Montgomery plays that conflict well, showing both vulnerability and resentment at the betrayals Mary has suffered. Other cast members, including Gabel and Xander Berkeley, who plays a local magistrate, capture the cadence and characteristics of the period.
West, however, seems to be in a completely different show. Alden's sarcastic quips are delivered with the same flat tone West used in "Nikita." Alden has plenty to be upset about, but the badly cast West offers only a grumbling, one-note depiction.
"Salem" as a whole reflects the difference in the work of West and Montgomery. Yet its wildly uneven premiere has enough going for it to make me watch at least another episode.
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