WGN America, a cable network best known for broadcasting the hapless Chicago Cubs, wants to play in the major leagues.
Sunday night the station presents its first original drama, “Salem,” in hopes of competing with AMC, FX and other outlets associated with pedigree TV.
Consider this initial effort a whiffed ball.
Like Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” the setting is a bustling town in 17th-century Massachusetts whose residents are convinced that witches are just around the corner. Except in this version, co-created by “Star Trek: The Next Generation” helmsman Brannon Braga, the paranoia is justified. Evil forces do live in their midst, in particular the conniving Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery), who keeps her henpecked husband under her wicked finger by lodging a fat toad in his throat.
Her evil nature was triggered by the absence of John Alden, who left her pining by the side of the caldron to go fight American Indians and work on his scruffy beard.
Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel) is the rabble rouser who believes it’s best to tie a noose now and ask questions later. His idea of menacing is talking slightly louder than any of the other characters.
There are flashes of past efforts throughout, including elements from “The Exorcist,” “Deadwood” and “Game of Thrones.” What is harder to find is any sign of originality.
The dialogue is clunky. The set looks like a slow day at the Renaissance Fair. The actors have two expressions: stern or really stern. Apparently, any indication of levity might lead to an overnight stint in the stocks.
The first episode, directed by Richard Shepard, pretends to be “adult” entertainment with nude moments and more than a couple buckets of blood, an effort that’s thwarted by the near-laughable scene of adult-like pigs and deer gathering for their regular occult meeting.
Not everything is terrible. There’s a solid, spooky concept at the heart of the series and Sibley’s mysterious enabler, Tituba, played by Ashley Madekwe, could be a breakout star. But in the day and age of such rich alternatives — AMC’s “Turn,” FX’s “Fargo,” Netflix’s “House of Cards” — “Salem” just doesn’t make a case as a tourist destination.
If WGN wants to make a national statement, it’s going to have to do better — or pray that the Cubs have a triumphant season.