Syfy’s TV adaptation of Lev Grossman’s book series The Magicians starts off as wish fulfillment. For the bored or lonely, there can be no better news than to learn that you, yes you! have special powers or abilities that need to be developed. And even better, you may well be the Chosen One on whom we now all rely to fight an encroaching darkness.
A good hero tale relies on the greatness of its villain, and while The Magicians’ first episode (of an eventual twelve) falters when it comes to some issues of character and world building, its villain steals the show, ultimately elevating it to the realm of must-see.
But before we get to that, we follow the whirlwind story of our Chosen One, Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) a hyper-intelligent, socially inept grad student (we know he’s smart because he tells partygoers to watch the original Danish version of a TV show. “The Danes just have darker souls or something,” he opines). He’s the kind of sensitive young man who hides behind a mop of hair, and dolefully looks at his best friend, Julia (Stella Maeve) whom he worships, and who “loves” him back … while keeping him firmly in the friend zone. So, he bides his time playing around with card tricks, and obsessing over a Harry Potter or Narnia-esque novel series called “Fillory and Further,” which turns out to not be a work of fiction at all.
This discovery comes as magic-dabblers Quentin and Julia are, in fairly short order, whisked away to Brakebills University, where the magically-inclined are tested for their potential to become more powerful, and thus enrolled (tuition-free!) into the school’s prestigious program. For Quentin, it’s a dream come true, but for Julia, it turns into something of a nightmare as she fails the tests and is sent back to her old life. Though she should forget what happens, she instead becomes solely focused on the world she saw, desperate to become a part of it.
The Magicians is engaging, and despite its fantasy bent, it isn’t for kids, teasing at sex and violence and some very dark elements. But on the less exciting side, its use of Ivy League-inspired collegial trappings and a standard intro to the school’s groups and characters feels half-hearted and needlessly rushed. The first episode (the only one available for review) is barreling towards a grand finale — and what a finale it is! — but it doesn’t spend enough time developing its characters along the way. This is particularly true of the wet-blanket Quentin, who, like his classmates, is hard to find compelling since he seems to have come from a place of privilege even before being admitted into magic school. (Some people just catch all the breaks).
The cast also fit into familiar stereotypes (Olivia Taylor Dudley as the over-achiever Alice; Arjun Gupta as Penny, the artsy and tortured one; Hale Appleman as Elliot, a cavalier party boy), but they haven’t gelled together yet as a group. Despite that and the broad strokes used to describe away any issues of life outside of Brakebills (like many series appealing to a certain age group, there are no pesky families in the picture asking questions, or even appearing at all), The Magicians is stylish, and ends its first hour with a great hook. The effects are even occasionally beautiful, and the series’ muted tones and focus on character drama also give it more of a liberal arts aesthetic than some of Syfy’s more science-drive and machine-focused fare.
But The Magicians makes itself truly memorable among a crowded TV landscape in those final moments of its opener, where its villain is introduced in an exceptionally dramatic visual fashion that is both striking and terrifying. Once there, The Magicians goes from being a maybe-watch to a must-watch, though whether it can hold that gaze remains to be seen. Still, the show’s early feeling of wish-fulfillment changes to something much darker and more alarming as it closes its first chapter. This magical destiny is not an escape, but it could still be the start of something great.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
The Magicians will launch with a sneak peek on December 16th after Childhood’s End on Syfy, and will debut in full with back-to-back episodes on January 25th.