Things are getting crazy in Salem, Massachusetts. Seven years after leaving town to become a soldier, John Alden (Shane West), comes home to find things far different than he remembers. Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel), the town priest, is working his flock into a frenzy over the ever-constant threat of witches. John’s former love, Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery), is now married to the wealthiest man in town. Impregnated by John years ago, she aborted the child with the help of her friend Tituba (Ashley Madekwe); the ritual put Mary in contact with mysterious forces, and her social standing hides a dark secret.
It’s 1692. The Salem Witch Trials are about to begin, and oh what a wild, sexy time that will be.
Reworking historical context into a fictional framework is a time-honored dramatic tradition. Used as a starting point, the documented past can be a way to ground stories and give them an added illusion of authenticity. Sleepy Hollow’s various absurdities are pleasurable in their own right, but they take on an air of pulpy myth-making when hero Ichabod Crane chats about his work with George Washington. However, mashing fact with fantasy becomes questionable when it involves taking victims of tragedy and transforming them into monsters.
Real women (and a few men) were tortured and executed in Salem and the surrounding areas when religious hysteria reached a dangerous peak. None of them were in league with Satan, or had supernatural powers that allowed them to control or injure others. Instead, they were victims of mob mentality and deeply-rooted superstition. The trials have become a cultural touchstone for bad judgment and persecution, and yet their fame has made them a regular subject for writers wanting to add a layer of dubious credibility to tales of horror and the occult. It’s become so commonplace to see the “witches” of 1692 referred to as beings with actual magical abilities that the reference has lost whatever charge it might have had. But it’s inherently distasteful to suggest that not killing enough people was the true mistake the Puritans made all those centuries ago.
Salem isn’t the first television series to focus on “real-life” witches. (Sleepy Hollow, for instance, has “good” covens and “evil” covens, which it deploys to varying degrees of success.) But Salem might be the first to set its story during the actual trials that made the town of its title so famous, complete with fictionalized versions of historical figures. The show’s eagerness to throw off the bounds of good taste would be endearing if it wasn’t so otherwise lifeless. There’s fornication, monsters, devils, naked ladies, branding, head-shaving, coveting, and, oh yes, lots and lots of witchcraft. These attempts to shock have an air of feverish desperation about them, a desperation which fails to hide what is, at heart, a collection of shallow stock characters and ramshackle plotting. Of the cast, only Gabel’s Mather comes close to having potential, largely due to the actor’s committed, loony performance. Mary’s conflicted loyalties are undone by Montgomery’s lack of affect, John is stolid and dull, and the normally reliable Xander Berkeley, as Magistrate Hale, seems barely present.
All of which would be forgettable but fine if the series had a different setting. There’s enough over-heated imagery here to suit anyone with a taste for demonic camp, and if future episodes maintain the pilot’s ratio of corny dialogue scenes to witch orgies, it won’t be entirely unwatchable. But Salem uses real life to prop up its shallow theatrics, and the result is too distractingly tacky to be enjoyed as pure foolishness. The premise isn’t simply that witches are real—it’s that these witches are, in fact, controlling Salem just as their accusers believed them to be, and their aims are far from noble. The closest the first episode gets to moral ambiguity is the implication that nearly everyone, from the supposedly pure to the thoroughly corrupted, is up to something less than wholesome. This doesn’t excuse the fact that the show’s seemingly sole minority character is introduced performing the sexiest backwoods abortion in the history of television, or a dozen other sins besides. Fiction doesn’t need to revere the past, but at the very least, it could show some respect for the dead. Exploitation needs to be earned to be effective, either through subversive subtext or an extravagant embrace of chaos. Salem aims for both and achieves neither.