review of WGN America's Salem

The entertainment industry today is divided on the question of portraying faith in their productions. A small number of media creators are genuinely interested in and concerned with promoting sincere, authentic faith and family programming; but the majority are cynical about, or even openly contemptuous of, such beliefs and those who hold them, seeing them as gullible idiots who will lap up anything with the word “faith” attached to it…no matter how insincere, incorrect, or poorly made it may be. Needless to say, such creators bring their snide, hate-filled sensibilities to the programs they create.

Exhibit #1: WGN America’s Salem.

Set at the time of the Salem witchcraft trials, the program exhibits all the depth, historical accuracy, and understanding of the nuances of 17th century America to be found on a Bazooka Joe bubble-gum wrapper. “The government was dominated by Puritan leaders. People were scrutinized closely and this resulted in obvious discord. They were afraid of being persecuted for anything that may offend the Puritan mindset,” states the show’s official website, articulating a worldview more compatible with a 21st century, tinfoil hat-wearing paranoid than with anything that actually existed in the real-life 17th century Salem. (As just one point: the overwhelming majority of those living in Salem then were Puritans themselves. This is like saying that today’s inhabitants of Manhattan are terrified of doing anything that might offend a Manhattan mindset.)

The twisted, psychotic villain of Salem is Cotton Mather. In real life, Mather was a towering intellect who combined faith, reason, moral suasion, and science. A pioneer in the fields of plant hybridization and inoculation against smallpox, Mather was also a tireless literary and moral influence, a preacher whose hundreds of books and pamphlets helped to shape the public culture of early America.

All this is irrelevant to the makers of today’s popular culture, of course. Even the very word “Puritan” has become a curse. Given the glorification of every kind of sexual perversion, even including joking about child molestation – rampant in Hollywood today, naturally any philosophy which urges a bit of self-restraint and moderation in behavior must be depicted as wholly evil.

And so must Cotton Mather. As scholar of religion Daniel Silliman notes:

"In the tradition of pop culture Puritans, Mather is a fanatic. And also -- as always -- a hypocrite. A few scenes after he's shown ranting about witches in church, Mather is shown in a brothel having sex with a prostitute. Because he's both hypocrite and fanatic, however, Mather doesn't just have sex with the prostitute; he SHOUTS OUT SCRIPTURE while having sex with a prostitute!"

Such over-the-top hatred of religion is unsurprising, given that one of Salem’s producers is Brannon Braga. Formerly a contributor to the Star Trek television franchise, Braga is now also serving as a producer of Seth MacFarlane’s version of Cosmos -- a series which, unlike its predecessor, is less concerned with teaching science than it is with spewing historically inaccurate anti-Catholic bigotry.

These prejudices are all apparent in the typical episode of Salem. “The following program contains adult themes and language, violence, and sexual situations. It is intended for mature audiences only. Viewer discretion is advised,” notes the opening of the TV-MA LV-rated show -- which nevertheless airs on basic cable at 9:00 p.m. Central/Mountain, when millions of children are still in the viewing audience. Then appears a “WGN America Original Program” logo. (Gee, it’s like WGN thinks it is – or wants to be – HBO or FX. Just what America’s cable subscribers need: yet another network filled with explicit, gory programming.) Viewers then see a woman with a bondage-style mask over her face, shrieking; another tortured by being dunked into a stream; Increase Mather (Cotton’s father) vowing that he’ll stay in town “ until every last devil’s whore of a witch in Salem is dead,” and a woman ripping a bloody heart out of a man’s chest. And that’s just the “previously on” trailer.

Viewers are then treated to Increase entering a jail and finding a woman with a pale, corpse-like face spattered with blood, presumably already dead. Bellowing all the while about prayer and the Bible, Increase hauls the corpse up a scaffold, puts a noose around its neck, then yanks down on the corpse’s legs. The corpse’s neck breaks with an audible “snap.” Later in the episode, Cotton asks, “She was already dead, yet you hung her?” “I said she would hang, and hang she did,” Increase snarls in return.

After opening credits that do their utmost to resemble those of FX programs like Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story, (with a theme song by Marilyn Manson, yet), this third-rate knockoff of such shows continues with the town’s most powerful secret witch Mary Sibley (improbably attired in a tight, cleavage-baring dress – if the Puritans were really as “repressive” as this show makes out, how is a woman allowed to parade around in broad daylight in such clothing?) approaching Increase in a tavern, where they discuss Mary’s missing husband.

Meanwhile, John Alden finds Cotton hung over and sprawled on the ground in a cemetery, moaning about his dead girlfriend. Anne Hale approaches and chirps, “Good morning, Reverend! I wonder what it would take to get you on your feet?” Because naturally, the minister is a drunk as well as a frequenter of prostitutes and an oppressive witch-slayer.

Increase also takes time out to tell Isaac Walton – known throughout Salem as “Isaac the Fornicator” – that he should be glad he has had his reputation destroyed (and, in a previous episode, was branded on the forehead with a letter “F” by Cotton), because now he serves as an example to the town’s children of the evils of lust. He also takes the time to point out the occult symbols painted on the walls, made of “cremated ash of a 200 year old witch...and I burned her myself!” Increase boasts.

But the best illustration of the program’s attitudes is seen when, arriving home with her servant girl Mercy (who begs the witch to let her kill Increase Mather, and thus relieve her of her “burden”), Mary Sibley encounters Mercy’s father, Reverend Lewis. (Yes, another Reverend.) Mary refuses him permission to talk to his daughter:

Mary: “Were you perhaps considering another exorcism? Do your days grow dull lacking a child to beat and torture? Are the nights far too lonely with no daughter to visit?”

Because, you see, according to Hollywood that’s what all clergymen ARE: deluded, irrational fanatics, drunks, whoremongers, rapists, abusers, torturers, and child molesters, who seek only to oppress and enslave all of society – ESPECIALLY strong, free-thinking, independent women! (Who happen to be witches who worship Satan. But then, that’s just like Christians: afraid of allowing people to think for themselves and find pleasure in an alternative religion.)

Out of a cable and satellite audience of over 100 million, Salem typically draws about 1.5 million viewers – scarcely better than such late-night talk-show trash as Chelsea Lately. That less than 1% of cable subscribing Americans watch Salem speaks volumes…yet, every single cable and satellite subscriber in America is forced to subsidize it.

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