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, 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.