'Motherland: Fort Salem': TV Review

Beautiful, but hard to get lost in.
3/18/2020

The witch trend continues on Freeform's supernatural drama about cadets learning to conjure at a military academy.

The new supernatural alt-America drama Motherland: Fort Salem, in which witches revealed their existence to the world 300 years ago and have since served as the nation's soldiers, offers the kind of sprawling world-building for which television is an ideal medium. (Also see: Watchmen, Game of Thrones.) After reaching an accord with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692 — when conditions were less than favorable to their kind — the witches of the New World have fought America's wars against those of other countries.

One of the most striking images in Fort Salem — let's dispense with that awkward title — is a redone portrait of Emanuel Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware," with centuries-old general Sarah Alder (Lyne Renée) in George Washington's tricorn hat and place at the front of the boat. Since the witches' greatest present-day enemy also parallels the real-life American military's current foes — terrorists, basically — does it follow that Alder and her troops led the genocidal campaigns against the Native Americans? That the witches of the North and South battled over slavery? That they invaded Vietnam under the thrall of the domino theory?

Fort Salem begins with one superpowered draftee resigned to an early death ("Conscription is slavery," declares one character) and another determined to enlist despite her mother's desperate protests. Those character introductions, combined with the U.S.' bloody history — and YA conventions about new recruits at strictly hierarchical and morally flexible training centers — make it natural to initially suspect Alder and the top brass of nefariousness. 

Created by Eliot Laurence (and executive produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay), Fort Salem is part-supernatural coming-of-age story, part-alternative history, part-espionage adventure and part-feminist fantasy. At its best, the series is wildly ambitious and gorgeously otherworldly, with flying drug trips, strength-enhancing orgies and brilliantly novel aesthetics, especially in its marriage between military chic and Goth motifs.

But it is rarely at its best.

Fort Salem leans early and heavily into its most familiar, least interesting storyline: the burgeoning friendships between its cadets. Arriving at Army Hogwarts are cynical Raelle (Taylor Hickson), a working-class recruit leery of the officer caste; posh Abigail (Ashley Nicole Williams), a member of a fabled military bloodline struggling with the pressure that comes with such heritage; and sunny Tally (Jessica Sutton), the only roommate of the three who seems primarily motivated by altruism and a desire to do good.

The unending war the witches are to fight is the one against the Spree — decentralized cells of conjurers whose trademark is cerulean balloons. (It's to the show's credit that these airborne ambassadors of the sky quickly take on such a sinister aura.) But first, Raelle needs to butt heads with Abigail, who needs to be taught a lesson by Tally, who needs to fall in love for the first time, all with the spark and spontaneity of a ticking clock.

The Spree infiltrates the academy before the arrival of the new class, making these squabbles and affairs feel insignificant. It doesn't help that the young cast has trouble with the wordy dialogue, especially in the exposition-heavy pilot. The humorlessness and futuristic turmeric-toned palette of the first six episodes are occasionally broken up by surreal whimsy, but the latter ultimately underscores the wasted potential of the vast, if possibly under-thought, world-building at hand.

If Fort Salem isn't particularly interested in how witches may have shaped American history beyond Macy's department stores now being called Tracey's, it at least doesn't pretend that a nationalism fueled by female militarism would be preferable to one guided by male hawkishness. Still, it's hard not to be at least a little gung-ho about the series' reimagining of witchy weaponry: chants, force fields, necromancy. Entire battles are fought with frog-throated sound waves.

But perhaps the most notable invention is the show's vision of female leadership and dynastic matrilineality. Women wear authority in an array of styles (even within a military setting), recruits openly gawp at female celebrity generals and young witches are taught their female ancestry. (On a more grounded note, members of feuding families carry on decades-long clashes — a subplot that a less self-serious show could turn into a running joke, or actresses with more chemistry could make actually compelling.) Fort Salem offers a beautiful world to gaze at, but it's hard to get lost inside it.

Cast: Taylor Hickson, Jessica Sutton, Ashley Nicole Williams, Lyne Renée
Creator-showrunner: Eliot Laurence
Premieres: Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Freeform)