'Darkly Sexual' Salem Is 'Wuthering Heights Meets The Exorcist,' Where Witches Run the Trials

Salem Preview Shane WestThe cast and creators of WGN America’s Salem on Sunday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour fielded some criticisms while also offering provocative teases about the project, which will premiere Sunday, April 20.

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Set in 17th century Massachusetts (but filmed in Shreveport, La.), Salem admittedly runs afoul of the corrective history taught in schools, where we learned that “witch trials” were born of mere paranoia and nothing supernatural. As a press release puts it, the series “reexamines the infamous witch trials” of the time, while Seth Gabel (Fringe), who plays local aristocrat/witch hunt proponent Cotton Mather, explained at TCA, “It questions facts and perceptions and at the same time gives you access for understanding that the truth may be metaphorical.”

Teasing other tweaks, cocreator Brannon Braga (Star Trek: The Next Generation) said, “Our take is that witches were real, and that they were the ones running the trials.” What’s more, Salem will also feature male witches, both actual and accused.

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Braga likened the project to “Wuthering Heights meets The Exorcist,” in that Janet Montgomery’s (Human Target) character, Mary Sibley, has made a deal Salem Preview Janet Montgomery with the devil and her only salvation is the prospect of finding true love with John Alden (Nikita‘s Shane West, who sees his alter ego as “in this world, the first American hero”).

But lest you think Mary is some corset-clad puritan pining for a proper man, know that the producers are promising quite the opposite. For one, she shares what Ashley Madekwe (Revenge) calls a “darkly sexual” bond with Madekwe’s Tituba. Cocreator Adam Simon (The Haunting in Connecticut) describes Mary as equal parts Lady Macbeth and Scarlett O’Hara and says that she and Tituba are “particularly strong female characters that are more complicated, more ambiguous than any you’ve seen [on TV].

“We’ve seen a lot of Tony Sopranos and Walter Whites, men we were fascinated by and loved even though they were led to some very terrible places,” Simon added, “but we’ve almost never gotten to follow a woman through that journey.”

All told, Salem‘s hope is to present a canvas of characters none of whom are easily pigeonholed. As the series unfolds, we will see that “there is evil in people who are not witches,” Gabel said, “and there is good in people who are.”