WGN America's "Salem": From left, John Alden (Shane West), Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel) and Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery).
By Rob Owen / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Another cable network rushes into the original scripted programming fray this weekend with WGN America's debut of "Salem" (10 p.m. Sunday), a loopy but-not-loopy-enough witch show.
Set in 17th-century Massachusetts, the "Salem" pilot is long on setup and doesn't get crazy until about 30 minutes in when a witch appears to give the Heimlich to a wheelchair-bound elderly man who vomits up a frog, which then appears to suck on the witch's thigh before she shoves the frog back down her husband's throat.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday, WGN America.
Perhaps if "Salem" had gone for the crazy earlier -- a literal backwoods witchcraft-induced abortion isn't as sensational -- it might be more appealing to viewers with an appreciation for cheesy TV. But the "Salem" pilot is rather plodding except when occasionally punctuated by these more gonzo scenes.
The story begins in 1685 as John Alden (Shane West, "Nikita") leaves Salem, promising his beloved Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery, "Made in Jersey") he'll be gone only one year.
Seven years later, Alden finally returns to Salem and a lot has changed. There's a witch panic -- public hangings of suspected witches is routine -- and Mary is married to another man and she's not only practicing witchcraft, but also she's secretly leader of the local coven, with an able assist from her helper, Tituba (Ashley Madekwe, "Revenge"). But when in public, she portrays herself as anti-witch, saying, "There is something worse than a witch hunt: A witch."
Local minister Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel, "Dirty Sexy Money"), who has some unholy peccadilloes of his own, leads the witch-hunt crusade. But it turns out these witches are crafty and have a plan that rewrites what viewers learned in their American history classes.
"The witch hunt has begun and we will be running the trials," Mary says. "We'll use the trials to turn the puritans against one another!"
As written by executive producers Brannon Braga ("Star Trek: Voyager") and Adam Simon ("The Haunting in Connecticut"), the tone of Sunday's pilot varies wildly from self-serious early on to high camp later in the episode. And unlike the recent "American Horror Story: Coven," there's little effort made to inject much winking humor.
In time and with a greater effort to be over the top, "Salem" could evolve into a guilty pleasure. But its first impression offers little magic.
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