Salem: The Vow review

The premiere of Salem has some fine production values, but reinforces some problematic themes.

In 1685, Salem was not the nicest place to live. In the social and political climate, you could basically be shunned, branded, or even killed for being not boring enough. Naturally, anyone who wasn’t down with this was thinking “Hmm…hang out at home or fight in the French-Indian War. I’ll take war.” This is pretty much the tack that our hero(?) John Alden takes.

When he returns seven years later, Salem has changed, but for the worse. Anti-witch hysteria is on the rise, his childhood frenemy Cotton Mather is leading the self-righteous mob, and the girl he left behind has married the rotten old asshole who kind of exiled him but not really (more on that later). So, what’s a sensible, down to earth, war-ravaged guy to do? Become the main character, I guess.

Turns out his former lover, Mary, mystically aborted their baby in the woods with the help of her black (and yet inexplicably and anachronistically sovereign) friend Tituba. In this same ritual, she became a witch and now has a plan to rid Salem of all these tedious buzzkilling Puritans. She’s going to orchestrate the Salem Witch Trials, forcing the entire community to hunt and exterminate each other while the real witches sit back and wait for the dust to settle and Salem to be theirs.

Okay…full disclosure: As a practicing Wiccan (going on fourteen years now), my relationship with the fantasy and horror genres is admittedly…complicated. I have an obvious bias here, and while I’d like to do a completely impartial review, it’s frankly impossible.

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The truth is, when it comes to fantasy and horror, I like my magic (and especially my witches) to be either super accurate to actual pagan beliefs and ritual practices or so far off from the truth that the practitioners might as well be unicorns or dragons; complete fiction. It’s when the material has one foot in accurate fact and the other in unresearched ridiculata that I tend to go buck nutty. So, with that little disclaimer out there, I present you a two-part review of the pilot of Salem, the first focusing on the piece purely from an artistic and entertainment standpoint, and the second taking things a little more, shall we say…personally.

This series does have a few things going for it. The production values are excellent, one may argue a little too good. For 17th Century Massachusetts, those buildings are way too pretty. And the wardrobe budget, while well utilized, was put toward creating costumes that no self-respecting (and self-righteous) Puritan would wear. Also of note are the special effects, which are, with one or two exceptions, beautifully executed, particularly the SFX makeup, which rendered what could have been Darth Maul on acid into a legitimately scary demon.

The actors, for the most part, do a good job, making the most out of their parts, especially guest star Kevin Tighe (as Giles Corey) who, even when he’s cast as a good guy, always seems to come off as some kind of creepy old dick. This is the most sympathetic role I’ve ever seen him in, and he still creeps me out.

Sadly, this is where the show’s strengths end. Simply put, it’s just a bad script. The pacing is all off from the word go. Exposition is clunky and awkwardly placed, and while I’ll allow a certain leeway on that in a pilot, particularly one in the science fiction, fantasy, or horror genres, very little of this awkwardness had to do with fantastic elements, most of which required little to no explanation; it was the backstory, the characters’ motivations, scene after scene after scene of characters verbalizing all their subtext or recapping events that we just saw five minutes ago. Not to mention all the anachronisms. And there are so, so many.

Starting with the superficial, you have the outfits and hairstyles, which are egregiously immodest for Puritan Salem. Sure, certain artistic liberties need to be taken for the sake of character distinction and drama, but come on. I don’t care how rich Mary is (let’s forget for a second that in that place and time such pronounced class distinctions wouldn’t occur), there’s no way she’d get off scot free showing that much cleavage in mixed company, especially in public, and certainly wouldn’t have outfits conducive to that effect. There’s a lot of lace and other fashion accents like fur collars that make little sense in the Puritanical cultural context of the setting.

While we’re on the subject of accents, there is absolutely no rhyme or reason to who has an English accent and who has an American one. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of class or generation, and Salem’s not that big, so it’s certainly not regional. It seems to depend entirely on which actors are British and which aren’t.

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And then we have the characterization, which is weak at best. I mean, we’re kind of given Mary’s motivations in the prologue, but it’s never made clear whether she’s actually become some kind of grande dame or simply become a puppet of the dark powers. I think we’re supposed to root for Anne, Salem’s version of the quirky, rebellious, artsy girl, but she really just comes off as every bit the cliché that description evokes. I have absolutely no idea what her father, Magistrate Hale wants or how much agency he has in this whole thing, what with him publicly denouncing witch-hunting but privately being a witch in Mary’s service. If that’s the case, wouldn’t he be pushing for the Witch Trials that she wants?

Poor tortured Mercy is, aside from her Linda Blair moments, totally forgettable. And poor Isaac, despite his colorful intro and subsequent reintroduction, complete with his Harry Potter moment, where he lifts his bangs to show the “F” branded into his forehead (for fornicator), is a rather thin cipher whose motivations are painfully unclear. Tituba is supposed to have a sense of mystery about her, so the fact that the writers aren’t terribly forthcoming with insight into her is fine. She just ends up being more problematic than anything else. Come on, the one black character in the piece is the evil witch who corrupts the sweet, vulnerable white girl, pulling her over to the dark side? Are you kidding me?

But perhaps the most frustrating and least interesting character is — surprise, surprise! — our designated hero, John Alden, whose American accent and husky voice are supposed to designate him as the down to earth, swingin’ balls American we’re supposed to identify with, but it all just seems a little over the top. They want to paint him as the anti-Puritan, so he’s this skeptical, cussing (and with modern swear words and their meanings) atheist, which handled more delicately might have worked, but his character is so over the top and tonally dissonant that it just breaks the illusion of the setting.

Not to mention the fact that it would have way more interesting if he were a godly man, believed in Heaven, Hell, and Jesus, and took one look at the situation in Salem and said, “You people are fucking crazy, completely missing the point, and have lost your way.” But no. Religion is passé now, so we’re just going to make an outspoken atheist in a sheltered Puritan community a thing that would happen.

John (and for that matter, Mary) pisses and moans about how he was exiled and sent to the war, seeming to completely ignore the fact that he had one foot out the door already, set to head off to war of his own volition. He also suggests that what poor, afflicted Mercy needs is a doctor not a preacher, as she’s “touched in the head,” a rather progressive notion, considering that modern psychology and psychiatry were still, like, two-hundred years away. I understand that John is supposed to be the hero here, but frankly I don’t like him very much. When he’s not boring the shit out of me, he’s pissing me off.

The only character I find myself enjoying, if not rooting for, is Cotton Mather, mainly because he’s the only character that shows any potential complexity. He takes his job seriously, truly believing in everything he preaches, but appears to be conscious of his own hypocrisy when he gets aroused to the point of tremors while inspecting Mercy’s body and must then go release the tension not by taking advantage of Mercy (which would be wrong in his eyes), but by visiting a whore and seemingly not for the first time.

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And I have to ask: whoring scenes? A Puritan reverend who drinks…at a bar…in a Puritan settlement? A Puritan Bar? Blood and viscous fluids and brutal violence? You know, watching all these new shows trying to be the next Game of Thrones makes me nostalgic for the days when every new show was trying to be the next Lost. But back to Cotton Mather.

I’m torn on his character. I see the potential for a very rich, conflicted, Brother Justin from Carnivále vibe for him, which I think would be far more interesting that to have him be some smug asshole twirling his mustache over the sucker townsfolk who buy his whole pious façade. Hypocrisy was certainly a mark of the times, especially amongst the devout, but I find it just a little too easy, a little too straw man, to make him so obvious a hypocrite. As for the whores…like I said, the entire scene was sort of Game of Thrones-lite (and I love GoT, let’s just be clear) and I’d normally roll my eyes at the gratuitousness and lack of creativity, but to be perfectly honest, Seth Gabel’s performance in that scene was just so funny, weird, blasphemous, and over the top that it was, in a bizarre way, charming. So, I’ll give the writers a pass on that one.

I was not a fan of how Mather is made out to be a fop in his childhood, especially as a means of discrediting him. It’s just more coded gay villainy. “Oh, he’s a man with delicate or even feminine qualities. Oh, it’s comfortable to hate that! I side with our manly, husky-voiced, proto-Murrican hero all the more!” Really? And let’s not forget the irony of the fact that it’s usually the smaller, quiet intellectual who’s more prone toward reason than the simple, knee-jerk brute, but fuck logic!

So, that’s my professional, technical review of the pilot. Now? Now, it gets personal.

Seriously, every time there’s a new show about witches, I’m afraid something like this is going to happen. You know, WGN promised us a “bold new vision of witches.” All I saw was the same tired, clichéd bullshit that’s been shoved in my face my entire life.

Now, look, I accept (I don’t like, but I accept) that most people consider witches to be purely fiction, a fun Halloween staple that has no basis in real life. You know, much the way Hollywood Indians bore very little resemblance to actual Native Americans, except that people generally know Native Americans are real…well, the ones that are left. And I can accept this: Hollywood witches are fun. Their magic is dramatic, visual, and far more, shall I say, “tangible” than actual Pagan prayers and rituals. And if this were ten or twenty years ago, I’d say fine.

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But people know better now. We have pentacles on gravestones in military cemeteries. It’s a federally recognized religion in several countries, including this one, and it’s clear that creators Brannon Braga and Adam Simon either didn’t bother to do their research or just didn’t care about perpetuating harmful stereotypes about an entire class of people.

Witches are like anyone else. Some are nice people. Some are assholes. Some pay their taxes on time. Some dump people with a text message. I have no problem with the depiction of evil witches in a work of fiction so long as it’s balanced out with some good witches. And besides being thoughtful and respectful, it’s just better storytelling.

But once again Witches and Satanists have been conflated into one group, when actually the two belief systems are radically and fundamentally different. Witches don’t serve the Devil. Witches don’t even believe in the Devil. And I suppose one could make the argument that since we’re dealing with Puritans and how witches are circumscribed within their worldview, Satanic “witches” would be thematically appropriate, but that would be a perfect opportunity to point out the irony of the situation: Mather says witches are real, Alden says they’re not. Mather is right that they’re real, but completely wrong about everything else. All his scholarly information on the detection and hunting of witches is factually incorrect and thus harmful to the population at large as anti-witch hysteria grows into the witch hunts and trials.

Both men have to adjust their views to see the true witches, who may not even be the real enemy. Let’s bring in some actual Devil worshippers. A third party always spices up the mix.

And on the subject of “spicing things up,” what was with all the homoerotic undertones to the ritual scenes between Mary and Tituba. Unless the writers plan on developing a complex lesbian relationship between these two, I’m calling bullshit on the shameless pandering. I mean, are we still there? Are we still at the place in our society where two hot chicks getting steamy together is considered risqué and/or the province of dark, unnatural women? For that matter, are we still at the place where Wicca is considered by the public at large to be a women’s (and even lesbian) religion? Aside from the Dianic sects, men not only participate but in the Wiccan community and ritual but play an active part in.

Tell me, Braga and Simon, what part of this is “bold and new?” Please. It would boring if it weren’t so offensive. This pilot is mediocre on its own artistic merits, but the level of cliché and, frankly, ignorance in the piece drives it over the edge into plain offensive badness. Props for solid production values and decent acting, but other than that, there isn’t much to recommend about Salem.

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1 out of 5