When I first heard that WGN was entering the original programming arena, my first thought was, “The Superstation?” I always knew WGN as a local Chicago station that, for whatever reason, was on my Los Angeles cable service, and played reruns around the clock. For a brief time in the 1990s, it was a WB affiliate, which allowed me to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer three hours early and wow my friend with my uncanny ability to predict what will happen.
So I didn’t think much of WGN making their own programs. Then I saw some clips from Salem and it started to look pretty good. When I watched the screener of the first episode, I was damn impressed.
I like this show.
The first thing I noticed about Salem was that the first episode didn’t feel like a traditional pilot. Generally a new show has a lot of introduction and a lot of exposition to set up, plus actors and crew are still settling in. Salem did not suffer from that. Everyone is familiar with the Salem witch trials, so we know what we are doing here. The other necessary info is doled out in a natural, unhurried fashion. In other words, the producers don’t treat the audience like idiots.
Salem is set in 1692, at the start of the witch hysteria. Except in this version of the witch trials, witches are real. At the center of Salem are Mary and John, lovers who are separated when John is sent off to fight in the Indian war that should keep him away for no more than a year. But seven years go by, and Mary is told he is dead, so she marries the town elder and becomes wealthy and powerful. The marriage is one of convenience - Mary is in league with the witches, and her wheelchair-bound husband is a perfect cover. But then John comes back, clearly not dead, and throws Mary’s world into disarray. Adding to the complications is Cotton Mather, Salem’s reverend who takes the lead on the witch hunts - and doesn’t have much patience for John’s disbelief in witchcraft.
There is a lot of sex and nudity for a basic cable show.
I certainly have no problems with sex or nudity; I just wasn’t expecting so much from a show that isn’t airing on HBO. In the first episode, there was a surprising amount of under-boob; bare butts; hints of lesbianism; sex toys; and a fascinating blend of religion and sex that sets most people on edge.
There is nothing “pretty” about these witches.
I feel like, when witches are presented in pop culture (everything from American Horror Story to The Secret Circle), they are presented as beautiful, human women who chants some spells and “stuff” happens, without them having to get their hands dirty. The witches in Salem get their hands plenty dirty.
The show is set hundreds of years in the past, but isn’t difficult to understand.
The dialogue isn’t overwhelmed with “thous” and “ye oldes” and other archaic phrases, which I think will make it accessible to a wider audience.
Salem is “authentic” but not “real.”
While attending the Television Critics Association’s Salem panel, a number of critics seemed to take issue with the fact that the show all but ignores the socio-political and cultural issues surrounding the reasons for the witch trials. Some even seemed offended. While the producers remain authentic to the time period, even basing some characters on real people and taking a fair amount of detail from historical documents of the time. But this is by no means a “real” depiction of the actual time period in Salem. Women were not possessed; demons did not walk amongst humans; people could not walk on the ceiling. This is a fictitious story set in a real setting. I actually worry for the people who would be offended by this supernatural, dark, and crazy show that is clearly fiction.
Final verdict? If you have WGN (I’m not sure how wide the reach is), tune it. It is a fun, cinematic, and slightly disturbed hour of television.
Salem premieres on WGN America on April 20th.