TV REVIEW: Syfy’s The Magicians Is the Fantasy Show We Didn’t Know We Wanted
Over the last year, Syfy has successfully re-branded itself with gritty and exciting small screen adaptations. It started with time traveling hit 12 Monkeys, moved on to the alien invasion mini-series Childhood’s End, and then gave us the critically acclaimed space opera The Expanse. Now the network has another series to add to that expanding list of compelling genre: The Magicians.
Based on Lev Grossman’s trilogy of the same name, The Magicians follows Quentin Coldwater into Brakebills University, a place for the magically inclined. There Quentin finds that feeling of belonging and purpose he’d been missing in the “real world.” That’s because for so many of Brakebill’s attendees, magic is both an escape and a release from a harsh reality outside of the school’s magically veiled walls.
As Quentin tries to make a new home and friendship circle on campus, his best friend Julia remains stuck in the real world. One driven by the desire to find himself and the other to prove herself, both friends will soon uncover that the path to power is fueled by pain, and for some more than others a dangerous and potentially deadly fate. As both Quentin and Julia face a world full of the best parts of childhood fantasy, they’ll be tested–physically, emotionally and mentally–to prove their true magical and personal power.
The two hour pilot first sees Quentin stumbling through college life as his best friend Julia prepares to continue on her path of eternal social and academic excellence. But in a blink of an eye, they are both suddenly sucked into the world of magic, beckoned to take a test to evaluate their magical proficiency. Quentin passes, but Julia fails–a defeat that lands her begrudgingly back in the mortal world. The memory wipe she experienced at the hand of a magician wasn’t strong enough though, and Julia accepts the offer of an ominous man in an attempt to re-establish her rightful spot in Brakebills.
Meanwhile, on campus Quentin falls in with older students Eliot and Margo who offer him a crash course in magic school. Quickly after, his interest is peaked by the reserved and skilled magician Alice, who practically ignores Quentin until he reveals a mark that has possible connections to her missing brother. It all goes to the birds super quick, however, when a creature known as “The Beast” shows up, freezes everyone, rips out some eyeballs and almost kills our newest magician.
The second episode sees Julia put to the test after that odd character brings her to meet the other Brakebills outcasts. Along with another newcomer, Julia must find her way out of a freezer using only her logic, determination and the contents of the icy storage facility. Although Julia’s friends seem harmless, we learn that they are a part of a larger, more insidious plan. Back at Brakebills, we discover that magical get together between Quentin, Alice, Quentin’s roommate Penny, and his hook-up Jade from the first hour prompted “The Beast’s” appearance. Now the young magicians have to decide whether to keep their secret or expose each other to avoid expulsion.
The Magician‘s wasted no time establishing its characters and dropping viewers into its dangerous and addicting world of magic. What’s made immediately clear– literally from the very first scene–is that The Magicians isn’t ‘older Harry Potter.’ Not by a long shot. If we insist on giving it a comparative frame of reference, the series exudes unmistakable Narnia vibes. But instead of siblings, wardrobes and lions, The Magicians features best friends, clocks and the wildly discomforting ‘Beast.’ No slight to J.K. Rowling, but this series lives and breathes in a world textured with maturity and edge, in spite of its characters sometimes sophomoric behavior. Whether we’re in the dorms of Brakebills or on the streets of Brooklyn, this universe is chalk full of sex appeal and suspense.
At times, such as the first hour’s last moments, it can even be a little scary. That’s a large part of what makes the series so fun. At its core, The Magicians plays with several major elements of the genre, and spits back a well crafted and tonally balanced hard-core fantasy for the millennial generation. A perfect mix of the fantastical and practical, the series is strongest when it embraces its youthfulness– an angsty and driving soundtrack, slow motion montages, impeccable senses of style and all.
It’s beautiful to watch (and so is its cast), but most importantly its portrayals are engrossing and relatable. The world, despite its foundation in childhood reverie, feels completely tangible and that’s because of its characters. Almost every dramatic moment is executed with nuance, while the action and fantasy elements are thrilling. All the while it manages to avoid the self-indulgence and ego-stroking of its characters’ generation.
Jason Ralph, who stars as Quentin, has nailed making an over-saturated character interesting again. Not quite a hero and not nearly an anti-hero, Quentin’s strength as one of our main lenses into The Magicians universe is that he’s not a particularly impressive dude. Ralph plays on that, translating Quentin’s neurosis and social disconnect into an empathetic and endearing person. On the flip side, Stella Maeve perfectly embodies the innocence lost after we all decide to grow up, and the fire that can be rekindled for the things we truly want. While little is known about Margo at this point, Summer Bishil’s portrayal of the seductive and perceptive character leaves me clamoring for more. Olivia Taylor Dudley’s Alice is a clear standout as a talented and socially reluctant magician desperate to find answers about her brother. Meanwhile, Arjun Gupta and Hale Appleman are both wildly alluring scene stealers who perfectly employ their own natural charisma to drum up two of the series most intriguing characters.
At times the two hour premiere is a little uneven. The first hour sees both Quentin and Julia believably grappling with his disillusionment and depression before being flung into the stuff of children’s fiction. And although watching several characters have their magical cherries popped was decent fun (especially when it came to the show’s effects and use of practical magic), overall the hour demands too much of its audience and characters.
The pacing rushes through introductions to both people and possible plots, to the point where potentially appealing story material for this spellbinding urban fantasy is passed over. Why does Julia enter one elevator in a building she knows, exit into a building she doesn’t and fail to take a moment to freak? Not only is it a missed comedic beat, but it’s a fumbled opportunity to remind us of these characters literally unbelievable achievements–and what’s at stake if they lose what they’ve gained. Of course, the writers are trying to play it smart. Establishing the world without all the extras allows for quicker entry into the more interesting action and character development. Still, it would have been nice if the show allowed itself more time to introduce its audience to both its incredible universe and compelling cast. Especially considering how completely organic and enchanting their group chemistry is.
Speaking of which, the series’ second hour does a solid job of putting the universe building on hold to paint a better picture of its leads, while establishing the season’s first big plot tensions. The dilemmas–Julia’s fight to get out of a freezer while Quentin clamors to keep his spot at Brakebills–are expertly employed episodic plot arcs. Not only do they allow all the show’s characters to play with their power, but illustrate their personalities at their most tumultuous. If we’ve seen them at their worst and they survived, their best has to be a downright beautiful (and electrifying) mess.
The Magicians are the millennials Time magazine didn’t write about. They are sexy, tortured, clever–and now they’ve got the power to change just about anything. If the premiere for Syfy’s newest property was any indication of its ultimate potential, viewers should get ready for an intensely exciting and utterly satisfying journey.
The Magicians continues Mondays at 9-10 p.m. ET on Syfy.