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Salem: TV Review

The Bottom Line

You know the story. Salem. Repressive Puritans. Witch hunts to scare the populace. This new take makes the witches and the evil more intriguing and scary.

Air date

Sunday, April 20, 10 p.m., WGN America

Created by

Brannon Braga and Adam Simon

Starring

Janet Montgomery, Shane West, Ashley Madekwe, Xander Berkeley, Seth Gabel, Iddo Goldberg

An interesting start to original dramas for WGN, as a fine cast helps 'Salem' begin the bewitching process.

Because not enough outlets are making scripted television -- apparently -- WGN America has jumped into the game and opted, strategically, for a genre series.

And it’s a gambit that turns out better than probably expected.

STORY: 'Salem' Boss on Fearless Witches, Pushing Boundaries and Censors

Salem, created and written by Brannon Braga (24, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Voyager, Enterprise) and Adam Simon (The Haunting In Connecticut), updates witches and devils with a little more imagination and spin, with a chance to give the Puritan era a little more sex and blood than previously attempted.

If vampires can be updated (and please, no more of that), if clones can be all the rage (see: Orphan Black) and if Ichabod Crane can be mixed with time travel (see: Sleepy Hollow), then the withes of Salem are due for a reimagining. Braga and Simon saw an opportunity and, at least in the hourlong pilot WGN America sent to critics, they’ve taken enough advantage of it to merit a look or three.

What’s initially most interesting about Salem is that it has a cast that’s a little bit all over the map, but ultimately the hodgepodge works. Anchoring things is the very talented Janet Montgomery (Dancing on the Edge, Human Target), who plays Mary Sibley, Salem’s "most powerful sorceress," aided in a deed with the devil by the mysterious Tituba (Ashley Madekwe, Revenge). Mary starts out slightly more innocent, as the love interest of John Alden (Shane West, Nikita, ER), who is desperate to leave the dictatorial, religiously oppressive Salem and fight in the war. When he returns after seven years, Salem is in the midst of a witch hunt, orchestrated in part by Mary so that the Puritans will kill themselves in panic.

Xander Berkeley (Nikita, 24) plays Magistrate Hale, who tries to tamp down the zest that Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel, Fringe) has for weeding out witches in Salem, trying to preserve some peace (ostensibly). Elise Eberle (The Astronaut Farmer) plays Mercy, a girl possessed, and Iddo Goldberg (Mob City) plays Isaac, who alerts the recently returned John Alden that the devil’s work is being done in Salem when he refuses to believe it.

Credit Braga and Simon with ratcheting up the creep factor in Salem, which makes it more riveting than it might have been with a more staid depiction. And it doesn’t hurt that the whole thing is sexed-up to basic-cable standards.

Not all of the acting works all of the time, but the cast holds it together when necessary, guided with assurance by Montgomery, who alone deserves another episode or two just to appreciate. It might have been nice for WGN America to have more than one episode available to preview so as to get a sense of where the tone is going in Salem and to flesh out the characters more than the pilot alone allows.

The pilot, directed by Richard Shepard, doesn’t do anything too strenuous or vast with its visuals or sense of place, but it ably implies that the woods are best left to the witches and devils, and you might not want to go wandering in. Shepard also sets up enough creepiness with the Mercy character -- she’s basically food for devil animals -- to hint that the series will continue to make you as uncomfortable as it can afford.

As a first scripted drama effort, WGN chose wisely in at least trying something slightly different. The world of television doesn’t need another troubled cop drama or antihero piece. Reimagining the world of witches with Janet Montgomery? Sure, why not. Let’s see some more.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine