WGN America’s ‘Salem’ Manages to Make Witch Trials Boring

WGN America is mostly known for airing baseball games and syndicated sitcom reruns. It’s a network that you only half pay attention to, putting on old 30 Rock episodes or edited versions of movies like Fast Five in the background while making dinner. It’s not a network that you would expect to run a gruesome, sexually charged supernatural drama about witches, but, well, here we are. On Sunday night — unfortunately opposite Mad Men and Silicon Valley/Veep — WGN American will premiere its first original scripted series, the period drama SalemSalem, as you may gather from the title, is loosely based on the Salem witch trials. It’s obvious from the pilot that WGN America took notes from networks like FX and AMC, but Salem is hardly a worthy contender. 

In Salem, the witches are real. That’s what the writers want you to know upfront. There is no dancing around the subject; it doesn’t want viewers to spend their time wondering if the witches are real or if this this town is just paranoid. (It’s actually a bit of both; the witches are behind the witch trials.) This is established within the first five minutes so the rest of the episode can be spent exploring this fact, developing its witches (and their enemies) and having fun with witchcraft. Yet it doesn’t do much.

I wouldn’t say that I had high hopes for Salem, because the previews left much to be desired, but I really did want it to be good. I’m all for more witches in pop culture and television shows centered around then — I’m especially interested in this exploration of the actual witch trials, rather than modern-day witches in modern-day contexts (fun, but we’ve had plenty) — but Salem was nothing more than disappointing.

It isn’t the worst thing I’ve seen all season (it’s not even the worst thing I’ve seen this week or even this morning), but it’s shaky, unsure of what it’s trying to be. It focuses on Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery), who, after landing in an unfortunate situation, makes a deal with the devil and gains some pretty awesome powers, though we barely see her use them for anything outside of breaking mirrors and contorting her body in enviable ways. Her ex-boyfriend, for lack of a better term, is John Alden (Shane West, a usually OK actor who seems to be having a miserable time here). Alden returns from the Indian Wars to find that Mary is married to someone else (she’s also a witch, but he doesn’t know that yet). Cue the love triangle! “Coming home to Salem to get out of the war is like jumping into the ocean to get out of the rain,” says Isaac the Fornicator (Iddo Goldberg), and he isn’t lying, though he gives more credit to the dramatic nature of Salem than I can.

On the opposite end is Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel, sporting a lovely beard), the most familiar name from the Salem witch trials. He’s the antagonist of the series, and despite his predictability is still perhaps the most interesting character on it. Gabel has long been a favorite of mine, bouncing around on some of my favorite gone-too-soon shows (Dirty Sexy Money, United States of Tara). He’s far too good for Salem, but at least he’s having a grand ol’ time here, really playing up the over-the-top shenanigans of Mather — like spewing out religious ramblings while screwing a prostitute. It’s a bad joke setup: a pastor walks into a brothel, yadda yadda.

For what it’s worth, the pilot does get through some plot at a breakneck pace and ends on a somewhat-successful cliffhanger. It’s just that all of the actual meat in the episode is so bland. Salem comes off as the result of a cursory glance at American Horror Story: Coven and a quick skim of a Wikipedia article. It’s creepy on the surface (there are some fun scares for those who are easily startled) and it knows what the audience wants (it can’t do full nudity, but it’s almost comical the way Salem relies on strategically placed limbs and hair). As I understand, it was originally developed for FX, and there are parts of the episode that reflect that, but they are overtaken by Salem‘s shortcomings. It’s a show full of scares that’s somewhat scared to commit, or to go full throttle. For all the compelling stories to be told about witches, Salem manages to be positively boring.