Genre: TV Pilot (Horror)
Premise: (from network) Set in the volatile world of 17th century Massachusetts, ‘Salem’ explores what really fueled the town’s infamous witch trials and dares to uncover the dark, supernatural truth hiding behind the veil of this infamous period in American history. In Salem, witches are real, but they are not who or what they seem.
About: When you think about cutting edge television, WGN America probably isn’t the first channel that comes to mind. But that’s only because they’ve never had an original television show to TRY and become cutting edge with! Enter Brannon Braga & Adam Simon’s new pilot, Malice (now known as “Salem”). You might have heard Braga’s name before. He’s made many geeks happy writing on shows like 24, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the short lived but cool Flashforward. Co-writer Adam Simon, who’s been writing for over 30 years (his first credit was 1990’s “Brain Dead”) is best known for writing the 2009 film, “The Haunting in Connecticut.” Salem debuts this Sunday.
Writers: Brannon Braga & Adam Simon
Details: 61 pages (May 2, 2013 draft)
Only two more episodes left of Breaking Bad. I’m trying to extend them out as long as possible because I don’t want it to be over. After that, I’m not sure where I’ll head on the TV landscape. I watched one season of Mad Men, which I liked but didn’t love. I was thinking of getting back into it but people don’t seem to be too excited about it anymore.
I liked The Walking Dead, but also left off somewhere in Season 2. That’s probably the leading contender since the show only seems to be getting bigger and bigger. There’s also Game of Thrones. I watched 5 episodes of that and, I’ll be honest, became pretty impatient with the format (lots of talk talk talk talk talk scenes, which would be fine… if your story didn’t occur in a land of dragons and blue people). It seems like it’s a big universe to set up though, and appears to be the show with the biggest number of payoffs (I feel like every month I’m reading about another huge shocker on the show). So maybe I’ll hitch a ride on a dragon and become a Throner (is that what you call yourselves?). What do you guys think I should watch?
Maybe Salem can become my new watch-fest. Yeah, it’s on WGN America, which has never had an original show before, but here’s how I see it. If you’re the first ever show on a network, they’re going to let you go nuts. These execs know that the way you get noticed in TV these days isn’t to do what everyone else is doing. It’s to do something different. So let’s see what kind of show we’re gonna get.
Although the writers never tell us what year it is (tsk tsk writers), I did some online research to find out that the Salem Witch Trials occurred in the 1690s, in Salem, Massachusetts. When your reader has to do your research for you, that usually makes said reader angry.
After getting over that, I was introduced to our hero, John Alden. 16 year old Alden is in love with 16 year old Mary, but unfortunately has to head off to war. That’s one of the great story options you have whenever you’re writing a period piece. You can always write in some war that your hero has to go off to.
This, of course, means your hero will come back, older and wiser, to a place that has changed a lot, which is exactly what’s happened to Salem. Alden is now 27, thought to be a casualty of war, but pops back in to his old haunt, only to find three bodies hanging just outside the town. Apparently, since he left, his town has been overrun by witches. They’ve even brought over an English heavyweight to get rid of them, a witch-expert by the name of Cotton Mather.
Alden doesn’t believe in witchcraft, and yells at anyone who tells him otherwise. All he cares about is finding Mary again. But that turns into an unwanted surprise. Mary has gone off and married Old Man Sibley, a guy Alden and Mary used to despise as children.
The good news is she clearly still holds a candle for Alden. So we’re hoping these two are going to make it happen. Excccccc-cept we learn that Mary’s holding a little secret from her former lover. Turns out Mary’s a witch. She’s so evil, in fact, that she’s cast a spell on her husband so that he’s a prisoner in his own body, a slobbering vegetable.
Eventually, Alden comes to realize that maybe this witchcraft stuff isn’t so ridiculous after all, and goes to Cotton to see how he can help stop them. Cotton tells him this won’t be as simple as a few hangings. This is going to be a long drawn out war. A war that the witches will do anything to win.
Salem was pretty good. I noticed something immediately that I didn’t see from yesterday’s film. If you read that review, I commented that, in horror, you need at least one super memorable scene, something that freaks people out, the kind of thing you can imagine people talking about afterwards.
Remember, in this day and age, with social media and the good old fashioned internet, word of mouth is as powerful as ever. If you can come up with something that chills people, freaks them out, or unnerves them, everyone’s going to be talking about it, and that means more people are going to watch your movie (or your show).
Oculus didn’t have a single scene like that. Salem had three. The first was when Mary, as a pregnant 16 year old, has an abortion, with her servant literally reaching her hand inside her and pulling out the fetus. It was terribly uncomfortable. But it was MEMORABLE.
Next, there’s a scene where a young teenaged girl who is thought to be a witch is tied down and shaved. Every single inch of her is shaved, and one of the men watching this finds himself getting inadvertently aroused. It’s disgusting and sick. But it’s MEMORABLE.
Finally, there’s a huge orgy that occurs with all the witches in the forest, wearing animal heads, and covered in a strange moss-like grimy substance that seems to enhance all the slipping and sliding and pleasure for everyone involved. It’s disarming. But it’s MEMORABLE.
If you’re going to do horror these days, you have to push the envelope a little bit. You have to freak us out. It’s almost like you want whoever reads the script to say, “Are they really going to film this?” That’s when you know you’re pushing the envelope. Salem had that.
There’s something else I’m catching on to in a lot of these pilots I’m reading. There’s usually a character who starts out one way and ends up another by the end of the pilot. I’m not talking about a character overcoming his flaw, like you’d see in a movie (a man who’s selfish learns to be selfless), but rather their beliefs change or our perceptions of them change because of new information.
So here we have Alden, who doesn’t believe in witches. But by the end, he realizes they’re real. There’s Cotton, who we see as bad since he’s killing witches, when we know there are no such thing as witches. But then we learn that witches are real, and all of a sudden, Cotton becomes a guy fighting a just cause. Then there’s Mary. She starts out as the perfect little princess of our story, but then turns out to be a witch.
So when you’re writing these pilots, make sure characters are changing (or our perception of them is changing) during the course of the story.
Finally, probably the hardest thing to do with a pilot like this (something steeped in history and lore) is to pack all that mythology in there. It has to feel like its bursting with possibilities. Think of it like a dinner. Too many amateur pilots I read feel like they ate a couple of sushi rolls and a piece of celery. Your pilot should feel like a five-course Thanksgiving meal. Like its belly is full – that it can’t even eat one more mint. Braga and Simon clearly did a great job researching and filling this world up as there arose details around every corner. It reminded me a lot of Travis Beachem’s “Killing on Carnival Row” in that sense.
Unfortunately, whenever you’re doing a show like this, you’re only as good as your budget. Once Upon A Time had big ambitions but its budget made it look like it was 1982 again. So I don’t know if WGN America will be able to show off this rich complex period world Braga and Simon have created. But if they do it justice, they should have a good show on their hands.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Don’t be afraid to make one of your main characters a “bad guy.” I think as writers, we often want to protect our characters. Particularly our main characters. We want them to be good and just. But Salem taught me that it’s usually more interesting if you make one of those main characters “bad.” I thought Mary was going to be a typical unattainable romantic interest as she had married the town leader while Alden was gone. That might’ve worked out okay. When we found out Mary was a witch though, now her character takes on a whole new meaning and is far more fascinating.