Scott D. Pierce: ‘Salem’ gets interesting in the really crazy bits

First Published      Last Updated Apr 19 2014 05:29 pm

WGN America's new series "Salem" is cool and creepy and full of witches — as you might have guessed from the title.

"That's a compliment," said creator/executive producer/writer Brannon Braga ("Star Trek: Enterprise," "24"). "We'll take cool and creepy. We're definitely going after cool and creepy. We're also going after emotional entanglement with the characters."

"Salem" (Sunday, 8, 9:06 and 11 p.m., WGN America) is also dirty. Not in the context of a dirty movie — although there's some of that — but it's just plain dirty. It's set in the late 1600s, a time we all were lucky to miss. It's filmed in a re-creation of Salem, Mass., built in Shreveport, La., and the set is one of the more impressive things about the show.

This is pretty much the story we learned when we read Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" in high school — the story of how paranoia resulted in innocent people being put to death for witchcraft.

The twist in "Salem" is that there really are witches, they just don't happen to be the folks accused of witchcraft.

"Our take on the Salem witch trials is that witches were real and they were running the trials," Braga said. "That's what this show is about."

The story gets going when John Alden (Shane West, "ER," "Nikita") returns seven years after assuring his wife, Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery, "Made in Jersey"), that he would only be gone for one year. In the interim, Mary has given up on him and married another man.

You can hardly blame her.

Mary is also incredibly concerned about the witch panic that's erupted in Salem because, as it turns out, this upright, uptight Puritan woman is also the head of the local coven. And she's posing as a witch hunter.

It's an interesting take on an old tale. It's sort of scary in spots. And it's completely insane in other spots.

I don't want to spoil it, but there's a bit with a frog you have to see to believe.

The biggest problem with the premiere is that there's too little insanity. The plot sort of plods along until it hits those crazy bits, which are far more interesting than all the exposition.

There is hope for more of the crazy in upcoming episodes, however, amid the character development. We learn that Mary "made a deal with the devil, and the only thing that could probably bring her back from the brink is love," Braga said. "And so in that way, this show, in its most reductive state, is like 'Wuthering Heights' meets 'The Exorcist.' "

Alrighty then.

"Salem" marks WGN America's first attempt to get into the original programming game. The cable channel is available on DirecTV (Channel 307) and Dish (Channel 239) but is not available on Comcast.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.