The Magicians: Why are these characters so annoying?

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Three of the offendingly irksome characters in the new urban fantasy series, The Magicians

The urban fantasy series The Magicians has only aired 5 episodes so far, but already it’s become my weekly WTF television experience. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s the television adaptation (on Syfy in the U.S., on Showcase in Canada) of Lev Grossman’s popular novel of the same name, which is the first in a trilogy (of course). Grossman is credited as a consultant on the TV series. I haven’t read any of the books in the trilogy, so I can’t speak to how closely the series hews to the novel. I can, however, evaluate it on its merits, and unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of those.

In the premiere episode, we meet Quentin, a clinically depressed undergraduate who has recently checked himself out of a mental institution. His supportive friend-since-high-school, Julia, is encouraging him to apply with her to a graduate program at Yale. She tells him he needs to finally live his real life, as opposed to obsessing over the series of Narnia-esque books, Fillory and Further, he’s been obsessing over since adolescence.

They go together to the Yale grad program interview and find the interviewer dead. His assistant gives Quentin a package the interviewer has left for him. Inside, Quentin finds the long-rumored-but-never-confirmed manuscript for the sixth book in the Fillory series. Quentin is understandably flabbergasted at the gift and wondering why it was given to him by a complete stranger.

Quentin and Julia begin their separate walks home, and on the way, Quentin takes the manuscript out of its manila folder and tries to read it while walking in a blustery wind. One page gets blown away from him, and as he’s rushing after it, he is magically transported out of the city to highbrow Brakebills University in upstate New York. He finds that Julia also has been transported there, and together they follow signs to a lecture hall filled with a hundred other people who are far too accepting of all this, and everyone sits down to write a magical entrance exam.

While Julia is confused by the constantly morphing print on the examination paper, Quentin somehow manages the task. He passes the exam; she does not. The Dean of Brakebills (played by Rick Worthy, who is the sole reason I wanted to watch this series in the first place) tells Julia the bad news and sends her to have her memory of Brakebills erased. Meanwhile, Quentin, having passed the written portion of the exam, must now perform some kind of magic for the admissions committee, even though until 1 hour ago, he had no clue that magic was a real thing or that he had any magical abilities whatsoever. Somehow he manages to make a deck of cards fly around, and presto! he’s in.

He quickly meets two loathsome characters, swishy Eliot and bitchy Margo, who are second-year students (of a three-year program). Even though they’re shallow and vain, and even though Quentin is duller than Wonder Bread, somehow the three become instant besties. Separately, we meet two other first-year students, aloof tough guy Penny and biker chick Kady, who become instant fuck buddies. Notice how I’m using the word “instant” a lot in this paragraph? Yeah, that’s how it felt watching it, too.

Then we get some classroom scenes, where we meet introverted, bookish Alice, who seems to have a lot of magical knowledge already. (She apparently grew up in a magical family.) We don’t really get any sense of what the students are learning in these classes. We see them later casting spells, but we don’t get the sense that they had to work to perfect these skills. The classroom scenes feel like they are there just to have all the first-years together in one room, because otherwise their personalities are so different that they’d never associate with one another.

And that’s a big problem with this show: the characters are so enmeshed in their particular archetypes (the nerdy girl; the bitch; the flamboyant dandy; the depressive; the tough guy – I feel like I’m describing The Breakfast Club), I can’t believe them becoming friends or even interacting with each other. What possible motivation do second-years Eliot and Margo have to hang out with, let alone befriend, sad-sack Quentin? Later on, Alice convinces Quentin to help her work a spell to connect with her (dead?) brother “on the other side,” and somehow Penny decides to help, even though he can’t stand Quentin and barely knows Alice.

Meanwhile, Quentin’s real best friend, Julia, finds herself back in her real life, only the memory wipe didn’t take, and she remembers everything about her failed admissions exam at Brakebills. She finds herself in the unenviable position of knowing magic is real and being nevertheless cut off from learning it. Whereas before Brakebills, she knew where she was going (law school) and enjoyed where her life was at (great boyfriend; great career ahead of her), now none of that holds much appeal. Now that she knows about the magical world, the non-magical world will never satisfy her.

When she meets up with Quentin at a bar, she begs him to tell the Brakebills Dean to give her another shot. She shows Quentin a bit of magic to prove she has the ability. But Quentin, despite only having been a student of magic for a few weeks, and despite the fact that he and Julia have been friends forever, dismisses her spell as inferior and tells her the Dean knows best: she must not have the potential. And again, a character’s motivation is a complete mystery.

An angry, frustrated Julia goes into the women’s restroom at the bar and is cornered by a young, handsome guy in a suit who proceeds to nearly rape her telekinetically to prove that he has the magical knowledge she is craving. Despite the confinement and sexual violence he threatens her with, Julia goes with him to a secret “safe house” where magical people (called “hedge witches”) meet to informally exchange magical knowledge with each other. Imagine a sort of street gang of self-taught magicians.

Julia progresses in her magical knowledge with this group (led by head hedge witch, Marina), but at the expense of her “real life”. She ignores her boyfriend, she’s lost her ambition to go to Yale, and it looks like she’s hanging with the wrong crowd.

This is the most compelling story of The Magicians – a sort of Breaking Bad meets Harry Potter – but unfortunately, Julia’s not the main character; Quentin is. As viewers, we’re stuck mostly at Brakebills, with cookie-cutter characters in unbelievable relationships with each other.

I keep watching this show, hoping it gets better and hoping that I get more of the characters I’m interested in, and less of the characters I’m not, or that the annoying characters – Quentin, Eliot, Margo, and Alice – evolve to become more complex, engaging, or even just likeable.

There’s potential for the show to be better and not just because when a show is this bad, the only way to go is up. There’s a dark mystery unfolding, suggesting that Quentin’s obsession with the Fillory novels of his youth may actually prove useful in fighting off a “beast” that’s threatening the students of Brakebills. I just hope I can tolerate these characters and their inexplicable behaviors long enough to get to the good part.

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13 thoughts on “The Magicians: Why are these characters so annoying?

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  1. I feel like I have been watching so much bad TV recently that it made me overlook the annoyance of the characters in The Magicians. While I do love the concept of the show and how the actors portray the characters, I definitely have to agree with you that they are annoying.
    Julia annoys the living hell out of me. Her whole “I wanna be special too” attitude gets to me.

    I really liked your review! It opened my eyes on what I refused to see lol

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel like Julia’s frustration is hard-earned, though. She really has gotten shafted in this story, don’t you think? First, she doesn’t pass the entrance exam, even though she’s got magical ability. Then her best friend doesn’t even bother to put in a word for her to get a retest. (I mean, it wouldn’t have been any skin off Quentin’s back to do that for her. It was all on the Dean to say yea or nay.) Then she’s bamboozled into harming her friend in order to help Marina break into Brakebills, and what does she get for her trouble? Marina kicks her out of the hedge witch club. And why??? I wasn’t too clear on that. THEN, she sleeps with sleazy guy to get the name of another hedge witch club to join, and her reward for THAT is to have her boyfriend’s memory of her erased! This girl’s getting screwed left and right! (Pardon the pun.)

    Meanwhile, Quentin’s just moping along….

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  3. I feel that Quentin’s frustration (subsequently mine) is from the fact that she dissed magic before, basically telling him that it was high time to grow up. And basically, Julia is pissed that she isn’t in Brakebills because she is always used to being the special kid. She is good at everything she does and the one thing she “isn’t meant for”, she’s not gonna let go of. It’s pretty much human nature on this front. I feel like she kinda brought it upon herself.

    But you do have a point, the frustration is hard earned …as compared to Q, who’s pretty much *cry* “I want this so bad. I’m not good enough. I need this in my life.”

    Didn’t Marina kick her out because she went to help save Q or something?! Now that you mention it, I’m confused!!!

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  4. This is a great review, regardless of your feelings about the show. It actually makes me want to watch it, but I can’t, ’cause I only have a converter box. I hope you’ll post more, ’cause this is a cliff-hanger, for me (ha-ha)…

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  5. Seriously, it’s like the producers of The Magician searched the planet for the most annoying, untalented actor and found the worst of the worst to play Quentin. I really wanted to give the actor a chance but he is almost intolerable to watch. So many other good actors on what seems like a promising show, but every time Quentin appears in a scene I cringe.

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  6. Quentin alone makes this show insufferable: he’s not willing to help his so-called best friend by asking the school to re-test her, but he *is* willing to continue to indulge Alice’s reckless attempts to contact her brother, even after the first attempt has such serious consequences? The third episode makes it clear that he’s acting out of spite and jealousy from having been friend-zoned and eclipsed by Julia, and I’m sure later on he’ll make a move on Alice demonstrating the true motive behind his solicitousness. The premise of the show is interesting, but I can’t imagine sitting through multiple episodes with that kind of person as the guy you’re supposed to be rooting for.

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  7. You are more prescient than you know! (Or you’ve just seen enough connect-the-dots plot lines, that a show as transparently predictable as this one cannot surprise you.) While Quentin does indeed move on Alice (sorry for the spoiler but you already knew it was gonna happen), the show gets better and more capable of surprising you as the season progresses. Quentin does not get less annoying, however. 😕

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  8. Good review! I find this show so frustrating because I like the premise and a lot of things about it, but…well, basically everything you said. I agree that Julia’s stories are one of the more compelling parts of the show. Character motivation doesn’t seem important at ALL- and I’m surprised you didn’t mention how annoying Penny is! Seriously! He’s just horrible to everyone (except biker chick), constantly insulting everyone for no reason, completely and ridiculously arrogant, and not a great actor to boot. Ugh! And they had a chance to at least explain his horrible attitude a bit during “the trials” but instead, his innermost, dark secret is what- he’s falling in love with Kady? Wow.

    The show is at least interesting to watch and it has gotten better as the season progressed. I hope they improve a lot for season 2.

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  9. The actors are certainly annoying, with the exception of Julia. Quentin is a whiny little bitch, Alice is boring, Penni and Kady are just not interesting enough. Eliot and Margo have no significant role in the first 6 episodes, honestly they were not needed at all. Removing both wouldn’t alter the plot. I’m still giving it a chance hope it gets better.

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  10. If you think the show is bad… I listened to the audio book of the the first book and was ready to stab myself in the eye. The whole process of Julia losing her path is way darker than portrayed in the show. They do study A LOT and that was the only interesting part of the book. I cannot remember a main character I disliked as much before as much as I disliked Quentin. I think it is the first time ever I have actively wished for the ‘hero’ to fail and just disappear. What a whinny mess of self centered-ness and insecurity and arrogance and woe is me, I’m special but I don’t know I’m special but I’ll show you I’m special, Quentin is. I wanted to smother him with a pillow and put us all out of our misery.

    I couldn’t even finish it. And I finished the whole audio book of the seemingly never ending Jonathan’s Strange and Mr. Norrell.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. You’re the first person I’ve heard say the book was crap. I have a friend who was a big fan of the book series, but doesn’t watch the show because my ridicule of it made him think he’d dislike it. But after your review of the book, now I’m thinking my friend might actually LIKE the show, since Book Quentin doesn’t sound much different than Show Quentin. (And my friend doesn’t have the greatest taste in television and film entertainment.) I may have to get the book from the library just to satisfy my curiosity regarding just how bad it is, and whether the show is any improvement.

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  12. There are a good number of better reasons to stop watching this juvenile concoction of poor story line combined with the exploitation of sex and drugs. This is a lesson in how otherwise provocative characters alone cannot carry a lame show for long.

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