'Salem' plays the devil with history

Witchy woman: Elise Eberle in "Salem." The WGN America series alters history and adds a truly supernatural twist to Cotton Mather's legacy.
Witchy woman: Elise Eberle in "Salem." The WGN America series alters history and adds a truly supernatural twist to Cotton Mather's legacy.
Posted: April 21, 2014

The Salem witch trials of 1692 are generally ascribed to a case of mass hysteria fueled by religious zealotry.

But what if Cotton Mather was right and there were disciples of the devil running around in the Massachusetts woods?

That's the premise of Salem (Sunday, at 10 p.m. on WGN America), a series that mixes historical settings with modern monstercraft.

Mather was a fire-and-brimstone preacher from Boston whose arguments for the validity of intangible "spectral evidence" played an essential role in 19 men and women being condemned to hang for witchcraft.

He's also (as played by Fringe's Seth Gabel) one of the main characters in this drama, which is on balance more disturbing than diverting.

Our hero is John Alden, who returns after a long campaign of fighting the American Indians to find a Salem gripped in irrational fears and his true love ( Made in Jersey's Janet Montgomery) married to a rich old ogre (Michael Mulheren).

Alden is played by Shane West of Nikita. With all the frontiersman hair, however, West looks more like Gary Sinise here than he does himself.

Most of the names in the show have historical precedents, although substantial liberties have been taken. For instance, Alden, whose parents came over on the Mayflower, was in truth a sea captain and merchant in Boston who was only tangentially caught up in the witch trials while passing through Salem (although he famously wrote of the experience).

And the servant Tituba, an Arawak Indian brought as a slave from Barbados, appears here much altered and played by Revenge's Ashley Madekwe.

This series is the first effort by WGN America to become a truly national outlet with original programming. Until now it has offered mostly a patchwork of Chicago sports teams and syndicated shows. The channel is available in Philadelphia on Dish, DirecTV and Fios, although, as in many markets, not yet on Comcast.

The collision of supernatural and colonial in Salem is far darker and spookier than in Fox's hit Sleepy Hollow. And while you may admire what an ambitious and well-crafted show this is, there's a reason Puritans have never been show-biz darlings. They're kind of a gloomy bunch.


TV REVIEW

"Salem"

10 p.m. Sunday on WGN America


dhiltbrand@phillynews.com

215-854-4552 @daveondemand_tv

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