In the new Freeform series “Motherland: Fort Salem,” women are in charge. They’re in command of the Army. There’s a woman president.
This is, of course, an alternate reality. And it took magic to get them into positions of power. Sigh.
The premise of “Motherland” is bonkers. Its alternate timeline began 300 years ago during the Salem witch trials. Not only were the witches real, but they were losing their battle against mere mortals and were on the verge of being wiped out. So their leader, Sarah Adler (Lyne Renee) made a deal — if the witches were allowed to live, they’d fight on behalf of the Good Guys in perpetuity.
(Weird note: Utah does not exist in a map of the alternate-timeline America.)
Generation after generation of witches have fought for America. “Motherland: Fort Salem” revolves around several new cadets (Taylor Hickson, Jessica Sutton, Ashley Nicole Williams and Amalia Holm). They join the witch military and begin witch basic training at a witch military installation commanded by witch Gen. Sarah Adler, who looks great for a woman well past the age of 300.
So, yeah, bonkers. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. Or with magic. The premise of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which premiered (sigh) 23 years ago this month, was completely demented — and that was a great show.
(“Motherland’s” creator/showrunner, Eliot Laurence, has a history of over-the-top, insane shows. He also created, wrote and produced “Claws” for TNT.)
The premise isn’t the problem with “Motherland: Fort Salem.” The execution is. The harder it tries to be serious, the dopier it seems. The witches are fighting a war — not against a foreign power, but against evil shapeshifters who get people to kill themselves.
Laurence and the “Motherland” cast talk a lot about how the female characters are “empowered.” And, according to Hickson, “It’s more crucial than ever that women uplift each other and support each other, and I think we’re incredibly humbled to have a series that conveys that message.”
But does it?
For all the yakking about female empowerment, the show models some very bad behavior. The women backstab and undercut each other. Hickson almost seemed to be talking about the show she imagined instead of the one viewers will see starting Wednesday at 7 p.m. on Freeform.
Laurence was a bit more realistic. “We didn’t want their sisterhood to be easily attained at all,” he said. “It had to be kind of tough, which I think makes it more fun.”
But not that much fun. “Motherland: Fort Salem” might be more fun if it leaned even more into the crazy. It’s certainly no “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Too bad.
SPEAKING OF FEMALE EMPOWERMENT, Hulu starts streaming “Little Fires Everywhere” on Wednesday — and Reese Witherspoon (“Big Little Lies”) and Kerry Washington (“Scandal”) are both the stars and the executive producers.
There’s plenty of female empowerment behind the scenes. All six of the executive producers, including the showrunner, are women, as are most of the writers; the male actors all play supporting roles; and half of the eight episodes were directed by a woman. And Witherspoon’s company produced it.
“I made a conscious decision about eight years ago to start my own company, because I wasn’t happy with the choices that were being made for me,” she said. “And I didn’t see a place to exist within the industry that we had. There just wasn’t a spectrum of storytelling for women that I felt like was representative of the world that we walk through and that our daughters are seeing on film and television.”
Her previous productions include the films “Wild” and “Gone Girl,” and, for TV, “Big Little Lies” and “The Morning Show.”
Cool. Great. Go women! (And, no, that’s not in the least bit sarcastic.)
But all that behind-the-scenes empowerment isn’t exactly reflected on screen this time. “Little Fires Everywhere” is, basically, an often-overwrought soap opera.
It’s based on Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel and follows the same basic narrative about a controlling, well-to-do woman, Elena Richardson (Witherspoon), whose life and family — including her husband (Joshua Jackson) and children — are turned upside down by the arrival of a single mother (Washington) and her teenage daughter. The miniseries begins with the aftermath of a fire that destroys the Richardson home, then flashes back to events that led up to the it.
It’s set in 1997. Coincidentally, there’s even a reference to the premiere of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
The novel is filled with inner turmoil and nuance; the series is basically a big pot boiler. If you like soaps — if you relish the idea of Witherspoon and Washington chewing the scenery as they go at each other — you’ll be entertained. But it’s not exactly deep and it’s not about female empowerment.
The first three episodes of “Little Fires Everywhere” start streaming on Wednesday; the remaining five episodes will stream one per week on successive Wednesdays.