'Salem' review: 'American Horror Story' lite

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Image Credit: Michele K. Short

In the 17th-century saga of WGN America’s first-ever scripted series, Salem, black magic is legit, religion is an oppressive farce, and witches keep nipples in the dardnest places. The fiction reimagines infamous history. Those witch trials of Puritan-era Salem, Massachusetts? A conspiracy hatched by honest-to-God witches — a relatively gender-neutral term in this world; they can be female or male — as part of a takeover of the town. It’s hard to see why they’d be so hot for this piece of New World real estate. Salem’s an allegedly prosperous port — computer-generated ships mill in the harbor — but the joint’s one of those too clean, too hollow, small exterior/huge interior Hollywood period towns. But, hey: The secret occult takeover of the United States had to start somewhere.

The unimpressive set might be a poor spread, but Salem’s plot has a rich set-up. Grimly robed Puritan overlords, puffy with Biblical rectitude and bug-up-the-butt huffy about sex, rule the rustic roost. Horny toads get branded and locked in the stocks for boffing out of wedlock. So when Mary (Janet Montgomery) gets knocked up by boyfriend John Alden (Shane West) during a graveyard tryst the night before he trots off to war, she knows she’s screwed with a scarlet capital-letter F.

Mary does have a back-alley option of sorts in the form of the mysterious, maybe ageless Tituba (Ashley Madekwe), well-versed in necromancy. During a moonlight ritual in the surrounding wood crawling with shadowy critters and hideous creatures — escaped from the “Chaos Reigns!” freakshow forest of Lars von Trier’s Anti-Christ — Mary’s swollen belly deflates and the baby inside goes POOF! Surrendered, it seems, to wilderness spirits for whom a child might serve a fiendish purpose.

Mary’s devilishly ironic liberation leads to deviously ironic empowerment, for Tituba’s strange Vera Drake-ing came at a price, as most bargains with underworld figures tend to do. Hardened enough by lost love, Mary becomes tainted further by supernatural agency — a witch. She likes it. She hates it. Her ill-gotten strength is sexy on the outside, ugly on the inside — a reality she sees whenever she looks in a mirror. She gains agency in other ways, too, like marrying, then enslaving one of Salem’s wealthiest men, whom she privately uses and abuses, taunts and teases with her sexuality and in other certifiably slimy ways. (The scene with the frog alone makes the pilot worth skimming.) She joins Tituba in an diabolique team-up that would seem to serve a mess of esoteric entities that reside in a wilderness tar pit — part Hellmouth, part Black Lodge — with whom they commune via a randy bedroom rite that’s clearly a metaphor for something else, unless I’m totally misreading the part where Tituba starts rubbing Mary with the phallic-looking thing. Anyway. The witches want Salem, Mary’s a key player, and then true love John Alden, weary from war adventures yet wealthy from unspecified ventures in New York, comes marching home after seven years away to complicate everything.

Early reaction to Salem expressed concern over an approach to history that might appear to vilify women instead of portraying them as victims of an unjust society. And yet, Mary is not unlike a few other women we know from better shows — desperate ladies who are lesser citizens in a degrading patriarchal society, who make bad deals for security or power and live to regret it. Mary’s kin to Alison, Cosima, and (most likely) Rachel on Orphan Black and Joan on Mad Men. Moreover, Salem does affirm — in fanciful, symbolic, and crude ways — the major points of the now generally accepted Salem narrative: religiously driven superstition and moral panic; the subjugation of women; the demonization of sexuality. Seth Gabel (Fringe, Arrow) plays pious preacher and witch-hunter Cotton Mather. At one point, Mather makes abusive use of a possessed girl by walking her around town like a dog to sniff out witches. But he has his own demons, too, and he likes to vigorously exorcise them with some hypocritical exercise at the local whorehouse. (Salem likes shocks and skin. If you can’t get buzz with quality…) I’m not sure where Salem is going with its mythology, but thematically/allegorically, the occult forces plotting against Salem represent a reckoning — a judgment against a misguided, corrupt culture for crimes against nature and humanity. And frogs.

Despite solid acting and striking visual effects, the pilot is American Horror Story lite. The tone is a work in progress: On the cable universe continuum, it’s roaming somewhere between Starz camp and AMC self-serious. There’s story and emotion here, but I’m not sure how much or how potent. Mary is worth caring about; John (who I suspect will activate as a demon hunter, putting him further at odds with Mary), Mather and Tituba have backstories to tell, but none of them are as compelling as Mary, and the mythology toggles between familiar and provocative. Salem has narrative wells to tap yet needs even more dramatic options in the form of more diverse, interesting supporting characters. It’s best possible form might be Deadwood meets Sleepy Hollow. It should be so lucky to be so bold and fun. Regardless, Salem needs to be something more than it is, or it will quickly become a thing of the past. B-

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