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posted: 4/20/2014 5:30 AM

'Salem': Too much toil and trouble?

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  • Janet Montgomery, left, plays Mary Sibley, and Ashley Madekwe is Tituba in WGN America's new series, "Salem," which premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday. The drama is set in Massachusetts in 1692, the period of the real-life Salem witch trials.

    Janet Montgomery, left, plays Mary Sibley, and Ashley Madekwe is Tituba in WGN America's new series, "Salem," which premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday. The drama is set in Massachusetts in 1692, the period of the real-life Salem witch trials.

By Hank Stuever, The Washington Post

It's hard to think of a better way to get rid of a bunch of bad witches than by throwing them into the current, hotly competitive Sunday night television schedule, where they're almost certain to drown -- or more likely be ignored to death. (Then again, I'm often surprised at what manages to float.)

"Salem," the first original series from basic-cable rerun stalwart WGN America, is mostly just a bubbling-up of cheapo TV tricks -- certainly not the heralding of a bold new direction for the network or its viewers. Set in Massachusetts in 1692, the show is less concerned with period-accurate storytelling and more intent on overworking some worn-out tropes about Puritan sexuality hang-ups.

Where the actual witch trials of Salem have served broad dramatic purposes as a handy cautionary tale about religious paranoia and mob mentality, the producers and writers of "Salem" have decided the story works better if the preachers are correct and there really are demon-worshiping witches loose in the village -- all controlled by one dirty sexy witch who unleashes orgiastic mayhem during a ritualistic ceremony in which everything is metaphorically vaginal in nature. (I could be wrong. I sometimes miss things when my eyes roll to the back of my head.)

Judging from the pilot episode made available for review, this Salem story is one in which a viewer is supposed to root for the witch hunters. Shane West ("Nikita," "ER") stars as John Alden, a war veteran who returns to his home in Salem to find it in full hysteria over witchcraft allegations, with town officials arresting and even executing citizens (mostly women) who are suspected of doing the devil's work.

In his long absence, Alden's former betrothed, Mary (Janet Montgomery of the short-lived CBS drama "Made in Jersey"), has instead married George Sibley (Michael Mulheren), the town's richest man and fieriest firebrand. Although he's been stricken mute by a stroke, Preacher Sibley's crusade has been picked up by Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel), a hypocritical aristocrat who loves a good public flogging as much as he loves visiting the local whorehouse.

"Salem" is so efficient at setting up its premise in the first episode -- revealing who in town is secretly into witchcraft and who isn't -- that it just seems like a chore to watch further episodes. The writing is merely serviceable; the acting is uninspired; the scary stuff comes off as silly.

WGN clearly wants a piece of what everyone else is scrambling for -- a little cachet from an original drama series that gets TV addicts talking. Networks that once subsisted mainly on movies, sports, nonscripted documentaries and syndicated reruns are elbowing their way into the market for original, scripted fare. "Salem" is a prime example of the hopelessly flat (if professional-looking) shows that have come out of this trend. At least WGN has the assumed advantage (unlike Yahoo, Hulu and others) of being an actual cable TV network. The station, owned by the Tribune Co., has also ordered "Manhattan," a drama series about the making of the atomic bomb as well as a 10-part miniseries based on the Ten Commandments -- both of which sound more interesting than "Salem."

It's my job to welcome any and all attempts to try something new on TV (no matter how much it adds to my workload), but more often than not, and despite the overuse of the word "original," this spate of new series from upstart providers has mostly just heaped more mediocrity on top of the pile that's already there.

And of all the things you could make a show about, does it have to be more witches? From a marketing perspective, the answer may be yes, given the untamed desire for anything with a paranormal or supernatural theme.

From an artistic perspective, it's tempting to say that witches are worn out, steadily declining since the 1987 film adaptation of John Updike's "The Witches of Eastwick," wartless and all. That film ushered in an era of alluringly feminist Hollywood witches who thrive on control and cleavage but whose powers are nevertheless depicted as a scourge. In some ways, "Salem" affirms that we've barely progressed in our attitudes toward the idea of a witchy woman. What really scares us there? A woman who rejects tradition and social norms? A woman who castrates, literally or metaphorically?

Though I copped to witch fatigue in my initial review last fall of "Coven," FX's third season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's "American Horror Story," it wasn't too long before Kathy Bates' disembodied but still very much alive head was delivered to the door in a cardboard box. It might as well have come with a note that not all witch stories need to be cliché.

"Coven" was certainly full of its share of spells, vamping and stake-burnings (plus twirling-shawl cameos from Stevie Nicks), yet it also ably proved that the caldron has not boiled itself dry. Even though its conclusion was painfully protracted, "Coven" was the best iteration of "American Horror Story" to date, thanks mainly to its sharp-witted dialogue and fantastic writing for women characters. Not so with the witches of "Salem," whose spells are too easily broken.

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