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Salem: The Complete First Season

Other // Unrated // October 29, 2014
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Kyle Mills | posted December 11, 2014 | E-mail the Author

Salem, the first ever scripted drama series made for WGN America, is based on the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692. I'm sure most know the backstory of the Witch Trials, but for those that do not, essentially they were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people (primarily women) falsely accused of witchcraft in various towns in Massachusetts, most notably, Salem, in 1692 and 1693. The trials resulted in the executions of twenty people. The most famous adaption/retelling of the Salem Witch Trials is no doubt the various film adaptions of The Crucible, a fictional account of the Salem witch hunt that simply pointed out the ridiculousness and sheer lunacy of the whole situation with no actual magic and curses involved. Salem, on the other hand proposes the question that what if witches did in fact exist? This show makes no illusions about the whether or not magical powers or witchcraft existed, in this series mythos, witchcraft is front and center and IS the reason responsible for getting innocent people hanged, burned, etc.

Obviously the series itself takes place in 1692 in Salem, and while there are ALOT of characters to keep track of, there are only 4 of real importance. The first is Mary Sibley (played by Janet Montgomery), she's the initial witch of the series, Salem's most powerful enchantress, who hold a deep secret and deeper desires that may threaten her position and strength in the town of Salem.

The second is John Alden (played by Shane West), a hardened war veteran and Mary's one time love interest who returns to Salem to reclaim his love, only to find it consumed in a witch hunt frenzy.

The third is Cotton Mather (played by Seth Gabel), seemingly the initial antagonist of the season, is the well-educated local reverend who adds fuel to the fire on the Salem witch hunt. He's typically regarded as the foremost expert on witches and malice, and seemingly lives a life of upholding the law, despite living a private life that can turn his entire world upside down if it became public. The fourth I will touch on a bit later.

Janet Montgomery plays the primary witch of the season, Mary Sibley, who, as the series opens, is making a difficult decision about an unexpected pregnancy, where she loses the baby. Because of this, her lover, John Alden, disappears to join the war. Returning seven years later seeking his old life, he comes back to Salem, hailed as a war hero, where he finds out that Mary has married someone else, a wealthy man who governs over Salem, named George Sibley (Michael Mulheren), despite this, John decides to stay. As John begins to grow accustomed to his new life, he witnesses Reverend Cotton Mather having a woman hanged in public, claiming that she "danced with the devil" by practicing in witchcraft, creating a sense of paranoia in the town of Salem. Over the course of the first 6 episodes of the show, the main conflict is between Cotton and John, where the show utilizes the "Wash, rinse, repeat" cycle. While we're introduced to various characters, each episode has Cotton finding a new woman that he believes to be a witch, John will try to talk him out of it, and Cotton will end up having that person sentenced to death, the episodes are still entertaining, but they get a bit tiresome. Unfortunately for this portion of the season, Mary is primarily stuck in the background, she's still prominent, but Cotton and John dominate the story, though she begins to make calculated maneuvers to secure her place at the top of Salem.

It's around episode 7 where things begin to shake up the series for the better. Cotton makes the mistake of killing an innocent, coupled with the fact that he falls in love with a prostitute, something that is obviously very taboo for a reverend, it slowly begins eating away at him, tearing away at his soul and he begins to feel like he's losing his humanity. This is where the show begins to really shine as we get to see Seth Gabel really come loose in the role and give us the performance of the series.

I mentioned that there were four key characters in this season, yet only named 3. Episode 7 introduces us to Reverend Increase Mather (played by Stephen Lang), Cotton's much more revered father who has spent his life's work seeking out those who do the devil's work and shuffles them off this mortal coil. Increase comes to Salem after hearing about Cotton bringing the witch trials back into prominence, though he arrives after Cotton has had his epiphany and feels his son is now too weak willed to lead the charge against the witches. Increase immediately shows the audience how ruthless he can be by declaring the prostitute Cotton is smitten with, a witch. Fearing for the town's safety at the hands of the tyrannical Increase, It's now up to John, Mary and Cotton to put an end to the Salem Witch Trials.

- Positives:

+ The chemistry between the primary actors, Shane West and Seth Gabel, is excellent, and the majority of this first season rests on their backs. The chemistry between the two makes their scenes together a delight to watch.

There are two particular actors I have to single out...

+ Seth Gabel. I've been aware of his work before he became famous from his time on Fringe, all the way back to when he played Adrian on the second season of Nip/Tuck (when I felt it was must see TV) and I always thought he had amazing potential, It's great to see him in these roles where the writers really give him a chance to shine. He steals the entire show.

+ Stephen Lang, whom plays Reverend Increase in the final 7 episodes of the season, is absolutely wonderful as the lead villain.

+ Historically incorrect, yes, but it's an interesting twist on the Salem Witch Trials in media.

+ Despite the fact that this show airs on WGN of America, this show can be quite brutal and it pushes the envelope. Make no mistake about it, this show is not tamed down for television in the slightest. On top of there being nudity in nearly every episode, some of the notable sequences (but not limited to) has one of the characters forcing a frog out of a mans throat, numerous hangings, people being burned alive, a woman forced to slash her own throat, and probably the most disturbing of all, a baby is birthed while a pregnant woman is just walking through her house. Personally I feel the series excels in this area, it's grotesque and it pushes the envelope for a network television show.

- Negatives:

- Takes a few episodes to get going.

- Has a habit of falling back on cliché writing and dialogue.

- Some of the acting is amateurish. Shane West sticks out because he doesn't get a lot of solid material, he's told to kind of just stand there and brood a lot of the time.

- Some people may not take the source material being portrayed this way too kindly.

Video and Audio:
Salem is presented in it's original widescreen 1.78:1 aspect ratio that is quite solid overall. There's no real signs of any noise, and the images on screen are sharp and clear.

The audio for Salem: The Complete First Season is presented with a 5.1 English Dolby Digital track that is a solid mix throughout, where i didn't experience any sort of dropouts or distortions while watching the set.


- There are no extras in this release, completely barebones.

Overall: I think Salem can be best described as a guilty pleasure, the writing can be choppy, hammy, and clichéd at times, but it's just so much fun to watch. The acting is above par, especially with the performances from Gabel, Lang and Montgomery, the set designs are wonderfully executed, the scenes where witchcraft is present are quite intense and brutal, so if you're a horror aficionado, you'll definitely get your fix. Recommended.

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