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Review: The witches of 'Salem' can't cast a spell

It seems strange to recall that just a few years ago, the scripted drama was on a death watch. Threatened by premium cable, falling ratings, reality television and the omnipotent menace of "the Internet," the hourlong nighttime drama seemed on the way of the variety show.

Now, of course, everyone with a network is seeking to rebrand itself with some highly produced historical drama or another.

"Salem," which debuts Sunday, is Tribune-owned WGN America's maiden voyage into the roiling waters of scripted drama. (Tribune also owns the Los Angeles Times.) Although there is some beauty in the brightwork (fabulous sets, ditto costumes), it is a motley vessel. She may stay afloat, but she is not yar. Revisiting the Salem witch trials, "Salem" is a hybrid of period detail and horror that seems overinfluenced by trendwatching and faith in the power and elasticity of Comic-Con.

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Return with us, if you will, to a time when dour Puritans belched threats of brimstone upon the masses while throwing fornicators into the stocks. Not a great place to be a gal in love, as is young Mary (Janet Montgomery) with the simmering John Alden (Shane West), whose outspoken liberal ways quickly get him banished to the Indian wars. Though not before he knocks up Mary.

As months pass with no word, she is truly in a bind. This Salem with characters that are loosely based on actual historical participants doesn't just stitch a big A onto your dress, it brands an F on your face. Desperate, she follows friend Tituba (Ashley Madekwe) into the forest where her unborn child is handed over to some blurry bestial creature that bears a suspicious resemblance to various residents of Fox's "Sleepy Hollow."

For this Tituba, unlike her historical progenitor, is neither slave, scapegoat nor part of a mass hysteria that will go on to claim the lives of 20 people while tainting the notion of religious freedom in America. No, as her vaguely Jamaican accent might imply, she's a bona fide, broomstick fondling, magical unguent-spreading witch.

And seven years later, when the action really begins, so is Mary. But now she's married to the town's most loathsome Puritan and is the richest, most powerful woman in Salem. 

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When Alden finally returns, doubt may flicker in her inky eyes, but as Cotton Mather ("Fringe's" Seth Gabel) resurrects the local obsession, Mary makes it quite clear whose side she's on. If there be trials, the witches will be running them.

"Salem" isn't terrible, which is actually too bad. If you dismiss the true horror of a significant event in history in favor of a highly fictitious version, as creators Adam Simon and Brannon Braga have, your show had better be either very, very good or so bad it's campy.

"Salem," unfortunately, is neither. It looks great, features some fine actors doing their level best (Janet Montgomery and Gabel, you will find better shows!) and it's still hard to beat a satanic circle for sheer creep-value.

But witches running Salem is, if nothing else, a very limited concept and the timing could not be worse. In nonprocedural television, the only thing more ubiquitous than period drama is witchcraft. Having plowed through vampires, werewolves and zombies, we are currently awash in witches, from "Sleepy Hollow" to "American Horror Story." Even Lifetime beat WGN America into the game.

Like countless other networks during the last few years, WGN America is trying to follow the "Mad Men"/AMC path to success. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it does not a brand make. "Mad Men" took the world by storm in part because it was like nothing else on television.

"Salem," on the other hand, is like pretty much everything else on television.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Salem'

Where: WGN America

When: 7, 8:06 and 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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