Could the entirety of the Salem witch hunt have happened because of an overly long war and a scared pregnant girl?
Okay... that's a bit simplistic in comparison to what went down in Salem Season 1 Episode 1 - but it's as good as any other asinine theories out there about the Salem witch trials. It was pure crazy, so why not toss in a disturbing love story at the heart of it all?
There's a lot to enjoy about the Salem pilot. They didn't pull any punches with the fear factor, sex (or sensuality) and they're putting a completely different spin on the situation than ever before. People love what-if scenarios and the Salem witch trials are ripe with opportunities given there is so little closure on the entire event.
Cotton Mather was a real dude who had direct impact on the Salem witch trials. He laid their groundwork and it was because of him that spectral evidence (like the ghost demon Mercy saw in her room) was allowed at the trials and was used in convicting people (for a while, anyway).
In case you want to write him off as a loon, his other writings are widely agreed to be among the most important of his era, giving historians a look into the world at that time. Generally, Cotton didn't form an opinion one way or the other. He just wrote about what was happening. He seems like a fine character around which to form this story, don't you think? Who's to say he didn't see a witch hanging from the ceiling and just never wrote about it?
Many of the characters are based upon real people, but a lot of creative license is taken with them. Mercy Lewis was one of the afflicted and believed John Alden partly responsible for the death of her parents during the war. He was actually accused of witchcraft. Mary Sibley thought up a "witch cake" used to seek out witches (made of rye and accused witch urine; yummy!) and Tituba one of the first tried.
John Hale was alive and well during 1692 and a Puritan pastor. Giles Corey? Accused of witchcraft, refused to admit or deny and was -- you guessed it -- pressed to death.
But this isn't historical fiction. It's based on history. The witch trials themselves were hogwash, so what was said in the court documents can't be taken as fact. When it comes down to it, Salem is a genre series made to compete against the same. It's horror (and horrific).
The stars are from shows that have had large cult followings and no doubt Salem is hoping to find one of their own. Working against them is the limited availability of WGN America and the inability of some people to just enjoy shows like Salem for the romp they are and not take them too seriously.
So what about stories of the series Salem?
The idea here is that witches and demons were in Salem long before the trials. Tituba (who has an accent that pops up when it damn well pleases, thank you very much) had been bumbling around Salem for a while before Mary needed her services to end a pregnancy.
A young, unwed pregnant girl in a Puritan town has to either face the wrath of the Puritans with their stocks and forehead branding or, apparently, sell their soul to the devil (who looks a lot like Moloch who later messed with Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow).
It's hard to blame her for her decision and the scene was freaky deaky! There is some weird sensual energy Tituba drums up when she's around Mary. Maybe that will be explained someday along with why she chose Mary to become so powerful when Tituba was already so powerful herself. Poof! The baby was gone with some not-so-holy water, semi-nudity and a gal's fingertips tracing her body from lips to belly with that water. Gasp!
Of course, Mary's lover John didn't die in the war. He was captured and he held onto his half of their silver "vow" coin with every intention of returning. Like Mary, I wonder why he was making money in New York City rather than sending her letters of his well-being, but I'm sure that's coming.
Mary, having sold out to the devil, marries one of the town's influential Puritans (your fault John!) and enslaves him, taking his wealth and power for herself. I thought the scene where Mary forces her familiar (a toad) out of husband George Sibley's throat was wicked! That weird thing on her leg was supposed to signify a nipple. Hmmmm. It was a good chance for her to get as naked as is allowed on non-subscription pay TV.
Old frenemies, John and Cotton come to a sort of understanding about the witches. They're polar opposites, but perhaps not as much as Cotton would like to let on -- how about that sex scene?! Woah there! Cotton isn't the Puritanical preacher he's leading everyone to believe.
Cotton thinks witches want their own world. Turns out he's right. Mary intends to use the witch trials as a way for the Puritans to hunt and kill each other so that the witches can rule Salem. Mary is going to have to fight her love for John (since he had the audacity to return) as well as the John, Cotton and Isaac trio as they try to "out" the witches for what they really are. I think.
Really? Who cares? Salem has everything I love in this type of genre programming -- hot guys, hot girls, sex, supernatural forces at work and scream-inducing oddities like the frog and Mercy biting off her fingertip (WTF?!). It also makes me run to my computer to discover the real history behind the event. Why wouldn't I want to watch this every week? I can't think of one reason.
How about you? What did you think? Were you looking for a strict historical period piece (the costumes are grand, you have to admit) or did you come in with the right frame of mind (checking some of your brain at the door) and a desire to be entertained? Hit me up in the comments and let me know what you thought.
Grade the Salem premiere!
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.