‘Salem’ – Season 1 Review
By Lynn Sorel
7 out of 10
Synopsis: Set in the volatile world of 17th century Massachusetts, ‘Salem’ explores what really fueled the town’s infamous witch trials and dares to uncover the dark, supernatural truth hiding behind the veil of this infamous period in American history. In Salem, witches are real, but they are not who or what they seem.
Our Thoughts: WGN’s ‘Salem’ TV series is a twisted supernatural retelling of Salem’s history during the witch trials of the 17th century. In this fictionalized version of the story, the witches that the Puritan’s believed were present in town, were in fact real.
The first season starts with Mary, an unwed pregnant woman whose love (John Alden) is leaving for war, and is left with a choice of either being severely punished and her forehead branded for her sins, or joining the witches, giving up her baby to the devil, and gaining all the power she desires in return. Despite Alden vowing to return, she chooses the latter in the face of uncertainty, and goes on to marry the richest man in Salem, by the name of George Sibley.
Seven years later John Alden returns from war to find the witch hunt going on, his love Mary remarried a town full of fear. Mary is shocked by his return but continues on her chosen path. She enslaves her new husband by forcing him to swallow a live frog, which keeps him in an unresponsive state, while she takes all his money and power. She and the other witches plot making sacrifices for the “grand rite” by turning the already quick to judge Puritans against each other. Meanwhile Cotton Mather, the resident witch-hunter, is trying to keep Salem safe by killing any witches he finds, feeding right into what the witches want, in effect making the sacrifices for them.
The bulk of the series is character driven drama, however it’s not the intense drama we see in shows like ‘The Walking Dead’ or ‘American Horror Story’. The point of view of both the Puritan’s and the witches are depicted, so we see everything that is going on from all sides, more or less. We know who the witches are from the get go. Despite the series being a fictionalized rewrite of history, you still get the feeling you know generally what is going to happen next. I felt the season lacked mystery in some sense for this reason. As someone schooled on the real trials and having seen movies like ‘The Crucible’, it’s a topic I know pretty well. Despite this, you are kept interested in what will happen next, even if it’s not to the extent as other popular shows. By the end of the season, action and drama start to pick up quite a bit more as everything comes to a head. With a few twists you don’t see coming, the final episode ended up being one of the best, if not the very best episode of the season, making the slow build of the show worth the investment of time.
The witches’ magic is entertaining, as are the special effects. The whole using a frog to enslave someone thing was quite amusing. The atmosphere they created with the series is perfect in the historical sense and it really immerses you in old time Salem. Much of it is also effective in creating a quite dark and creepy setting for the witches and their evil doings. I found the witches to be the most enjoyable aspect of the show. Some of them are more sympathetic than the Puritans in a way, despite some of them being evil.
One of the best parts of the story comes from the transformation of the characters through their love for each other. Cotton Mather starts out as a self righteous witch hunter, however by the end he wants to stop the witch trials altogether. Mary Sibley starts as a witch who will sacrifice anything and anyone to get what she wants, but by the end of the season she is realizing the wrong she has done and what she really wants in life.
Much of the acting in the series is very good. Janet Montgomery (Human Target, The Hills Run Red, Wrong Turn 3: Left For Dead) excellently portrays the power hungry, ice cold Mary Sibley. Shane West (Once and Again, Nikita) portrays the honest voice of reason John Alden. Seth Gabel (Fringe) gives an outstanding emotional performance as Cotton Mather. Stephen Lang (Avatar, Gods and Generals) is very believable as hell-bent witch hunger Increase Mather. Xander Berkeley (Candyman, Terminator 2, 24) is also excellent as Magistrate Hale.
Overall, I felt the first season was enjoyable, even if it didn’t have the intensity of my other favorite shows. It’s a interesting new approach to a terrible time in history for New England. For those looking for a fictionalized period piece about Salem, with a new supernatural twist, ‘Salem’ is a show you will want to watch. Anyone who enjoys seeing witches and magic portrayed on screen will also want to check out the show.
Season one of ‘Salem’ is currently streaming on Netflix. Season two is coming to WGN America in April.