New series Salem debuts with Puritans, sacrifices, rituals and requisite cable nudity. So have we reached peak witch saturation yet?
Let’s bitch it out…
WGN America’s Salem feels like a hodge-podge of a variety of other shows, but it’s unclear whether the series has anything new to say. Obviously the Salem witch trials are infamous and, like many series that use a general historical period as their narrative foundation, this show has little interest in telling an accurate account. No, this is a sexed up, American Horror Story-influenced approach to witchy narratives and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s certainly not a new thing.
The big problem with the series is that it seems to think a lot of its imagery is shocking. There are far too many scenes of hands/objects/things crawling towards the intimate parts of female characters – which feels a little too Puritanical for a cable drama released in 2014 (female sexuality?! Kill it with fire!). There’s basically no inuendo, but the writers appear to think that this is all very titillating and taboo. Newsflash hairdo: it’s not. It’s just kinda icky…and maybe a wee bit misogynist.
Consider the moment that manipulative witch Tituba (Revenge‘s Ashley Madekwe) plugs an earth-toned dildo into heroine/angtagonist Mary (Janet Montgomery) to initiate a ritual that’s basically an oil-orgy, complete with people wearing dismembered animals heads. Any kind of subtext about the power of female sexuality pretty much becomes text at this point, to the point that it’s almost laughable when the hero, John Alden (a bland Shane West) “shoots” his enormously long phallic rifle and disrupts the ritual, sending Mary – previously frozen in mid-air, disrobed and sexualized – tumbling back to the bed. If this is Salem‘s idea of foreplay, I can’t wait to see what happens with these star-crossed lovers actually connect. I’m assuming there’ll be some kind of vagina dentata involved.
Perhaps suggesting that this is problematic is taking things too far, though. As far as pulp period paranoia goes, viewers can do far worse than Salem. There’s potential in the idea of witches secretly controlling the trials to turn the Puritans against themselves so if that’s the direction that the writers end up exploring, this could turn out to be a fun Sunday night diversion. In order to succeed on that front, however, the dopey doomed romance between Mary and John needs to go and Mary needs to embrace her witchy awesomeness instead of moping around. It’s hard to reconcile the two halves of the character: the one who runs crying to Tituba because she thought John died during the war and the one who confidently extracts and feeds a frog living inside her invalid husband while in the nude. I can say without a doubt which version of the character I find more appealing, so let’s hope the writers settle on the one who makes for a more enjoyable lead.
- Most of the supporting cast is pretty unmemorable. Fringe alum Seth Gabel fares best, having a blast as the hypocritical Reverend Cotton Mather, the man leading the witch hunt but that’s mostly because he gets to pontificate religious scripture while porking a prostitute.
- Tamzin Merchant’s Anne, the too-forward-for-the-times daughter of Magistrate Hale (Xander Berkeley), could be interesting if Mary takes her under her wing a la Cruel Intentions. For now, however, she’s too dumb and naive.
- I’m uncertain what to make of Isaac (Iddo Goldberg). Initially he seemed to be a friend of Mary’s, but it later becomes clear that he’s scared of the witches. Is Isaac the best friend/side kick John needs to help uncover the conspiracy or is there more to this character?
- If the series hopes to move out from under the shadow of American Horror Story: Coven, it should probably avoid desperate over-the-top imagery such as a young girl (Elise Eberle) in a dog mask biting off her own finger or Venom-like black ooze crawling into a woman’s vagina. Unless of course that’s exactly the kind of comparisons Salem is hoping for (given AHS‘ boffo ratings), in which case, carry on!
- Finally, whose wig is worse: Shane West’s (which looks like a toupee that’s trying to eat his face, but still has more personality) or Xander Berkeley’s (which looks like it’s been raided from the wardrobe department of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow)?
What are your thoughts on the premiere? Will you watch again? Should the show embrace Mary’s witchiness and let her be unabashedly evil? Are you digging Seth Gabel’s over the top performance? And are the comparisons to American Horror Story accurate (or problematic)? Sound off below.
Salem airs Sundays at 10pm EST on WGN America