“The Witches of Eastwick” is not John Updike’s best work, but it may be his most lasting. It’s a novel about Rhode Island witches that many critics charged as misogynist but Updike said was intended as a satire on feminism. In his view, contrary to the popular idea that the world would be better off with women in power, Updike felt that the world would be in exactly the same mess as it is now. In other words, power corrupts absolutely, regardless of gender.
Subsequent renditions of his tale have squeezed dry whatever satire sustained the original story, focusing instead on perpetuating a soapy “Peyton Place” meets “Dark Shadows” view of New England. A place where attractive women are subject to relentless gossip and, therefore, turn to witchcraft between mornings clamming and nights boiling lobster for their boyfriends. You know. A place like Barrington.
Kidding, kidding. Nobody boils their own lobster in Barrington. Actually, to create Eastwick, Updike merely combined East Greenwich with Wickford, where his family name is prominent. But in truth the Ocean State has a checkered history with his story. Hollywood wanted to film the movie version (starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Cher) in Little Compton, but the locals weren’t crazy about Nicholson-as-the-Devil character spewing inside the little church on the town common. So the production moved to Massachusetts and was filmed primarily in Cohasset, with other scenes shot in Scituate and Castle Hill in Ipswich.
This year’s ABC TV version is the first televised production of the story to make it on the air, after two previous attempts. The show tries very hard not to pin down Eastwick’s exact location, except to put it somewhere “on the edge of New England.” The opening sequence features images of Ocean Drive in Newport, but for some reason the show’s creators are reluctant to come out and say it’s set in Rhode Island. Instead, they’ve invented a pastiche of New England towns – a blend of Maine’s fog (stolen from “Murder, She Wrote”), New Hampshire’s foliage, Vermont’s covered bridges, Rhody’s seaside charm, the witch legacy of Massachusetts and Connecticut’s New York hand-me-down fashion sense. The result is like putting Yankee magazine in a blender with “Desperate Housewives,” “Charmed” and “Providence.”
Lucky us. “Eastwick,” based on the first few episodes, is a mess. It’s not funny enough to be a comedy, not scary enough to earn its horror bones, not dramatic enough to be a drama and, despite the predominance of eye candy, not sexy enough to be worth staying up for.
A press release earlier this year by the R.I. Film & Television Office lauded the show for its aerial shots of Newport and for planning to film more location shots in Rhode Island. As it turns out, guess-the-location might be the only reason for a Rhode Islander to watch.
This week’s more important question: Where can you see houses decorated for Halloween in Rhode Island?
(There’s a nice little stretch beginning in Wakefield on Saugatucket Road, going through the Peace Dale Rotary and back into Wakefield via High Street, where three homes go wild decorating in the kitsch of the undead, making menageries of giant spiders, skulls on fence posts and cobweb-covered ghouls. If you’re in the neighborhood…)