When it comes to TV’s portrayal of witches, American Horror Story: Coven had its moments, but the newest entry in the genre — Salem — takes a more disturbingly realistic approach to the topic. The Season 1 premiere of Salem on WGN America (Sunday, April 20 at 10pm ET/9pm CT) takes little time to embark on a wildly wicked and provocatively dark telling of how the 17th-century Salem witch trials actually came to be. And, let’s just say, it wasn’t pretty.
TV vets Brannon Braga (writer on series like 24 and Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Adam Simon (The Haunting in Connecticut) are the creators of Salem, a series that marks WGN America’s first foray into original programming, and it’s a doozy. Yet amid the horrific persecutions and supernatural scares (the gag-inducing frog regurgitations are priceless) that are part of this epic witch story is a tragic love story.
Janet Montgomery plays the lead character, Mary Sibley, who was once happily in love with John Alden (played by Shane West) until he went off to war. While he promised to return within a year, that never happened and it set into motion a vastly different life for Mary. “She’s been told he’s dead and he then comes back seven years later after she’s turned her back on the world,” Montgomery explains. “She’s embraced the dark side. … She’s now become a very different person. She sees in one character in particular, Anne Hale [Tamzin Merchant], the girl she was once — the innocence and the rebellion — but that’s all lost now. She sees her flirting with John and it’s heartbreaking. It wrenches her heart.”
Although Mary teeters between being both a villain and a hero, you do understand how she became the person she is and smile grossly satisfied when you see some of the characters get what they had coming. “What makes Mary so compelling and what makes any TV show interesting is when you have a lead character who is doing something that you would immediately disagree with, but their reasoning behind it you understand,” Montgomery says. “And, the people she is doing it to are evil and therefore you reason with it and you reason with her character. Sometimes you find yourself going, ‘God, I can’t believe she did that. She’s so awful. She’s pure evil.’ And other times you’re like, ‘I completely understand why she did that. She had no other choice.’”
And Mary’s choices make for one epic witch story that cast doubt around who actually was behind the Salem witch trials. Braga described the series as “Wuthering Heights meets The Exorcist.” I’d agree, and it’s one combination that’s definitely going to leave you with chills. In fact, I still can’t get Episode 1’s scene stealer – Mercy Lewis’ Exorcist-like possession — out of my head.