I’ve been lingering of late, in hopes of bringing this column my thoughts on something new. The alternative was to go off on some shows I’m profoundly late to the party on. Thankfully, fortune shone on me in the form of two new series premieres.
I was on Hulu the other night, looking for something to watch as I wound down after a long day at work. Somehow, I stumbled on an image: mostly black and green. A tree that looks like it’s either partly human, or has a person tied to it, and the word ‘Salem’, and the tagline “Witch among us.” That was enough for me. Without doing any research, I launched into the pilot.
The show takes place during the Salem witch trials in the 17th century in Salem, Massachusetts. It’s not one of those trendy modern takes on a classic tale, this is a period piece, starring some familiar names such as Cotton Mather, Mary Sibley, and lots of prostitutes.
The unique (and controversial) twist of this show is that Mary Sibley, a witch, in collaboration with other influential townspeople who are also witches, are orchestrating the witch panic (or ‘pitching a witch fit’, as I like to think of it) in Salem so that the puritans will turn against each other, allowing the witches to take over the town and kill everyone else off.
What’s controversial about this is that it takes what is historically considered a brutal bout of religious paranoia and persecution, and turns it into an arguably justified response to an actual threat. In the process, the show vilifies the women that would otherwise be considered victims, and makes sympathetic the people who tortured and killed people based on the mere suspicion that they could be a witch. Of course it’s not that black and white. The response to the threat is aimed at the wrong people, and the puritans fall short of becoming truly sympathetic. But the bleeding heart wounds easily, and it doesn’t take much more than a whiff of wrongdoing to get the armchair activists up in arms.
The show is visually rich, with great cinematography and a clean, yet gothic feel. Freaky hags in mirrors, lizards with their eyes sewn shut, and a possessed girl paraded around town on a leash with her head in a cage are the kinds of things you can expect when the show gets weird. Not to mention the midnight forest abortion that kicked off the series. Or Cotton Mather (played by the guy who was Lincoln Lee on Fringe) having sex with a prostitute while quoting the bible, drunk.
I’m going to give this show a few episodes to see if it balances the controversy properly, pushes the right barriers, and brings the fright the way I hope it does. The story holds promise, weaving tales of love, loss, paranoia, revenge and greed together, but it has the potential to become stagnant quickly too.
Now, for me, the big news is that Showtime released the series premiere of Penny Dreadful something like two weeks ahead of its actual air date.
…I know, right!?
Someone had posted on Facebook something about Penny Dreadful, but I was too busy to read it. Later on, when catching up on all things internet, I stumbled on the post and lost my shit a bit. I’ve been eager to check out this show since I first started getting bits of info about it a few months ago.
Set in Victorian London, the show sets out to blend classic monster stories into a series that promises to be full of violence and sex. Early in the first episode, we are introduced to vampires and a young doctor, Victor Frankenstein. The hedonistic character Dorian Gray will also play a big role in the series.
Ethan Chandler is an American who is good with a gun, travelling as an entertainer, playing the part of a curly haired and moustachioed soldier that fought along side General Custer. He’s hired out by the mysterious Vanessa Ives on behalf of Sir Malcolm Murray to do a dangerous task. It’s during this job that we see our first vampire and learn that Sir Malcolm is trying to find his kidnapped daughter. Having killed a vampire, they look for a doctor to examine it, which introduces Dr Frankenstein. From there, things start to seriously progress.
At first watch, it’s a decent story. Television pilots are always a risky proposition, so I allow a little latitude. It’s after the second watch that I started to appreciate just how much is really going on.
Within the short span of time, the episode introduces some of the most profound and enduring monsters in entertainment, and manages to do so in a way that is fresh and relevant. Additionally, the tone is set so subtly. A quick pass by a newsboy reveals that a recent brutal murder has people believing that Jack the Ripper is back. Ethan Chandler can be summed up in two quick scenes. His introduction as a trick shot in a carnival style travelling show I would liken to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, and the scene in which he is hired by Vanessa Ives. In a few short sentences, she addresses his upbringing and his fondness for drink. Vanessa is a mystery, only characterised by her calm in dangerous situations, and her solitary prayer twice in the episode, seemingly plagued by regret or grief.
Of the acting itself, I was most struck by three scenes in particular. First by a character named Ferdinand Lyle, the Egyptologist. He may have been a minor character in this episode, but he sold the fuck out of it. His entire interaction with both Malcolm and Vanessa was brilliantly done, down to his pitch perfect facial expressions and reactions. The other two scenes I can’t say much of because one is the last of the episode. Victor Frankenstein, a clinical and scientific man, delivers the two most passionate and emotional moments in the entire hour. One when explaining to Sir Malcolm what he’s dedicated his life to, and the other being the final scene of the episode, which I will not spoil, but was an very unexpectedly touching moment. It’s scenes like these that will have me coming back for more, monsters and nakedness or not.
At the time of this writing, Salem has two episodes out on WGN America, a station I’d never heard of, and that I suspect doesn’t actually exist, except as a figment of my imagination as I either sink into insanity, or am plagued by evil creatures that mean me harm. Penny Dreadful is still scheduled to premiere on May 11 on Showtime. Meaning I now have to wait a few weeks before seeing the second episode. Regardless, I do plan on tuning back in to both shows.
Robb Olson is one half of the Booked. Podcast team. If you enjoyed his column, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and buying The Booked Anthology. If you do you’ll help keep the This Is Horror ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.