Two episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
**Trigger warning – premiere contains self-harm and a near-rape scene.**
Syfy’s The Magicians, an adaptation of the bestselling “urban fantasy” by Lev Grossman, pulls off one fascinating trick in its forceful, flawed first episodes. Combining unusually haunted heroes, a grounded and grungy aesthetic, and unexpected willingness to deconstruct its chosen genre, the series manages to dispense with the hangman’s-noose turn of phrase that has accompanied it since Grossman’s source material first hit shelves: namely, that this tale of sorcery students grappling with dark forces is just “Harry Potter for adults.”
Instead of buying into that pull-quote-ready categorization, the series (co-created by Supernatural‘s Sera Gamble and Aquarius‘ John McNamara) goes deeper and darker. Its protagonist is the troubled and mostly miserable Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), who shows signs of clinical depression and regards the Narnia-esque Fillory and Further series as a childish respite from the agony of an adult existence. He’s far from a classic hero, more prone to self-sabotage than self-reflection. And when he’s drawn to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, nestled within New York City but concealed to the uninitiated, those traits don’t fade – Quentin’s form of self-medication just changes.
Such demons may, however, be to his advantage. “Magic doesn’t come from talent,” says Eliot (Hale Appleman), a more confident classmate who takes the new arrival under his wing. “It comes from pain.” And Quentin certainly has that in spades. Immediately struggling to get a handle on his newfound abilities, he trudges through his first few days, terrified he’ll flunk out and end up back in his dead-end life. An encounter with the more studious Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) simultaneously lays the groundwork for a new friendship and solidifies his feelings of inferiority.
But Quentin doesn’t have the luxury of wallowing. Brakebills is no spellcaster’s Eden, and letting your mind wander can be fatal. The entire third-year class wanders zombified around campus after a mysterious and presumably horrible spell-gone-wrong. According to one of Quentin’s visions, of apparently real Fillory protagonist Jane (Rose Liston), the school administration is up to no good. And then there’s the matter of the Beast, a terrifying creature with a face obscured by a cloud of moths, who (in a truly terrifying scene that shows The Magicians can execute supernatural horror very well)
steps through a mirror into one of Quentin’s classrooms and leaves behind him a trail of bodies.
A villain, still unspecified after two episodes, is clearly on the horizon, and he has cruel intentions for the magicians (particularly Quentin, for reasons that no one can entirely figure out). And yet the students’ pace, and so the show’s, remains unhurried, with enough time for wingardium-leviosa sex, the requisite college fraternizing, and escalating tensions between Quentin and his roommate (Arjun Gupta).
An intriguing B-plot involving Quentin’s best friend and possible soulmate Julia (Stella Maeve), who is rejected from Brakebills and joins a shady gang of rogue spellcasters in hopes of still harnessing the magic she’s convinced she possesses, seems more urgent and compelling, if just because of Maeve’s uncommonly strong performance. Outside Brakebills, and surrounded by vaguely nefarious figures immediately earmarked as untrustworthy, her arc carries with it more implicit danger and thematic darkness.
Casting so many dark shadows, The Magicians occasionally feels like it’s trying too hard to be edgy, and the enigmatic conversations that follow the Beast’s bloody entrance mark a disappointing slide backward into convention after a daring break from it.
But even if it’s inconsistent, the series often captivates, and the oddly aseptic atmosphere of Brakebills is unusual enough to be striking. For a sorcery school, it feels mundane and colorless, not designed to encourage its students’ imaginations so much as it is constructed to mechanically hone their powers on a three-year assembly line. This is very intentional, and exploring why The Magicians has chosen to grind down its ostensibly magical setting to an all-business institution devoid of its own charm will hold the key to uncovering what the series really thinks of the fantastical contemporaries from which its setup borrows so much.
Grossman’s novel was in part about dissatisfaction with one’s own surroundings, and the deep sadness that can accompany falling short of one’s dreams, but the spells-and-sorcery genre in recent years has largely centered on wish fulfillment and all-important destinies. If the show is so inclined, it could push its tale of budding magicians and menacing evil in an interesting and consciously more grounded direction, with exciting results.
At the very least, this show has teeth, and an apparent desire to sink them into its own genre, riffing on and urbanizing the same themes of isolation, identity and self-sacrifice/destruction that have long been inherent in Campbellian heroes’ journey arcs. Like its protagonist, The Magicians demonstrates lots of clear potential to both follow and subvert that storytelling device, as well of flashes of poetic beauty, buried beneath a grim, world-weary exterior. You could call it an anti-escapist fantasy. And whether you’ll get hooked on its magic-as-antidepressant approach to fantasy will heavily depend on your tolerance for a spoonful of glum introspection accompanying all the incantations. But give this one time beyond its fairly stuffed pilot, and you just might fall under its clever spell.
At first blush, The Magicians' grounded, grungy atmosphere is more spellbinding than its characters, but its divergence from genre tropes comes soon enough as to be promising.