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WGN Imagines Supernatural Conspiracy in 'Salem' Witch Trial Series - But the Rest Is History
April 18, 2014  | By Donna J. Plesh

[Editor's Note: TVWW contributor Donna J. Plesh died April 2, 2015, from ovarian cancer. She was 71. Donna covered television since the early 1980s, initially for the Orange County Register and its TV magazine. She also was a member of the Television Critics Association. Donna was always a cheerful spirit within the TVWW network and often gave readers a kind, up-close viewpoint in her interviews with a wide variety of television stars. She will be missed.]

Our television screens today seem to have been invaded by every variety of undead beings... and the latest mysterious souls coming to entertain us are witches...

The series Witches of East End returns for Season 2 on Lifetime later this year. FX's latest season of American Horror Story was named, and was all about a, Coven. And this weekend, WGN America is debuting its first original scripted series, Salem, based on the events of the notorious late 17th-century witch trials in Salem, MA.

Salem premieres at 10 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 20. The fictionalized 13-episode series stars Janet Montgomery (Dancing on the Edge, Spies of Warsaw and CBS's Made in Jersey) as Mary Sibley, Shane West (Nikita) as John Alden, Ashley Madekwe (Revenge) as Tituba, and Seth Gabel (Arrow, Fringe) as Cotton Mather.  The character names are those of people who were real residents of Salem during that time in history.  

Salem, which blends romance, horror, violence, the supernatural and even some nudity, was created, executive produced and written by Brannon Braga (Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, 24 and Terra Nova) and Adam Simon (The Haunting in Connecticut, Carnosaur).

In an interview, Braga explained, “A lot of the show is derived from the actual transcripts that do exist of witch trials. Virtually every one. Good records were kept of the kinds of things people were accused of. And a lot of the characters, if not most of them, come from actual, or are based on actual, historical figures.

"In a nutshell, for want of a better phrase, our take on the Salem witch trials is that witches were real and they were running the trials, and that’s what you didn’t know, and that’s what this show is about. Why what they’re doing, what they’re up to and all that is what the show is all about and what is reviewed, but that’s the basic concept.

“I mean, didn’t everybody growing up get fascinated by Salem, in part, because you felt like there really are witches there? And everything we know is that, in fact, the 17th century was filled with witches. Everybody believed in witches, even the people that said trials were wrong and that these people weren’t witches, still believed in witches. I guess, in a nutshell, I would say the history is fantasy, but the magic in it is real,” said Simon.

Simon said WGN America got involved with the show when it was in the development stage.

“We had developed this within Fox… it was kind of a well kept secret within the Fox family as we were developing it with Fox 21. And Bert Salke, Fox 21 president, and the kind of geniuses there who heard the original pitch said, ‘Yes we want to do it.’ So we had gotten pretty far and we had crafted this pretty amazing pilot script, then WGN swooped in and said ‘Forget it, we want to do the whole series,’ after they read what was the pilot script, which is now episode one. They immediately saw the vision for the whole thing,” he added.

Simon is pleased that the series has a 13-episode order, not the normal 22 episodes most series get these days.

“This season there will be 13. We like that scale. In the grand and great cable tradition — like Game of Thrones — in many ways this show should feel more like Game of Thrones. It’s got all layers but also there is something novelistic about that storytelling. To me, as a writer, suddenly you have this canvas, not 22 episodes but 13. That scale just seems to me to be perfect. It’s like a novel.  You can really get the depth of these characters and at the same time keep going. All the reading I grew up with —Dickens, Stevenson — was told in this form so the chance to tell this kind of a historical, supernatural epic drama and not squeeze it into two hours but instead get to unfold it over 13 hours and hopefully, over years to come. That is irresistible,” he said.

Salem joins several other series on television that are period pieces, some factual and fictionalized —like AMC’s Turn and Mad Men, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and the Fox series Sleepy Hollow. Simon said he is thrilled about series that are based on the past.

“I feel I have spent my entire career being told in movies and TV you can’t do period — Americans don’t want to see period. Americans aren’t curious about that. I am old enough to have grown up in an era when half the shows on TV were Westerns which, by the way are periods. Or the Untouchables. Or Combat. Even M*A*S*H. Hey, that was a period show!

"So thanks to incredible work behind Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire and other shows … The Hatfields and McCoys… networks woke up to the fact that there’s a great hunger in people’s hearts to see great history. Why? Well one of the things is that we have kind of forgotten is that history is story. And the best stories tend to come from history and most of the stories we all grew up reading — Gone With The Wind — I mean all the great popular novels — The Godfather — are in many ways history stories. They are period stories.

"The best fiction has always been kind of historical fiction and I am glad that suddenly now — for the first time in my professional life — you can do that on TV."

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