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.