Review: ‘The Magicians,’ on Syfy, Draws Students Into a Fantasy That’s Real
By MIKE HALEJAN. January 24, 2016
From left, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jason Ralph, Jade Tailor and Arjun Gupta in “The Magicians.” Credit Carole Segal/Syfy
Young magicians joining forces against a malevolent, balance-of-life-threatening adversary? Check. A picturesque, hard-to-find campus where young mages learn to harness their skills? Check. Quidditch? No, thank god.
“The Magicians,” a better-than-average Syfy series based on novels by Lev Grossman, definitely bears the mark of the Harry Potter template. But the show is different enough in its details that from moment to moment you can forget how derivative it is.
The differences begin with the average age of the students at the upstate New York institution Brakebills, which is a college rather than a grade school like Hogwarts. This means rougher language, sexier costumes and the occasional scene of levitating sex or telekinetically removed clothing.
Matching the (relative) maturity of the students, the show’s look is mostly contemporary as opposed to the Victorian-Edwardian-Thatcherite smorgasbord of the Potter movies. We’re in the angsty post-teen territory of MTV and CW, with a central character on antidepressants and get-togethers in dark New York bars rather than crenelated aeries. (“Mostly” because the modern story of self-medication, insecurity and danger intersects with a secondary plot set in a Narnia-like fantasy world.)
The moody hero, Quentin Coldwater, is played by Jason Ralph, who was fun to watch as a jittery small-time drug dealer in NBC’s “Aquarius.” Here he’s more doe-eyed and earnest but still holds your attention, bringing some charm and resonance to both Quentin’s initial diffidence and his growing enthusiasm as he learns the ropes at Brakebills.
Quentin and his new friends do not apply to Brakebills but are drawn there, stepping through unmarked city doorways and emerging in sylvan quadrangles. Once there, they quickly (within the two episodes provided to critics) discover that the school is under threat from a creature known as the Beast, introduced in a genuinely creepy and disturbing scene with a high body count.
There’s a certain didacticism to “The Magicians,” a common feature of the young-adult fantasy genre. Doing magic, we’re told more than a few times, is a matter of letting yourself go and getting in touch with your true feelings and desires. The misfits, like Quentin, finally have an advantage: “Magic doesn’t come from talent. It comes from pain.”
That the show doesn’t stop there, and manages to be more engaging and credible than the usual basic-cable genre drama, probably can be credited to Sera Gamble, a longtime writer and showrunner on “Supernatural,” and John McNamara, a producer on shows like “Aquarius” and “In Plain Sight,” who are executive producers of “The Magicians.”
The series works well enough as a straightforward coming-of-age tale that the stock scenes of magic — a windblown sheet of paper leading Quentin to the proper doorway, a deck of cards forming castles in the air — can feel like cheesy intrusions. More reflective of the show’s approach is a fleeting, sly shot in which Quentin tries to pull off his sweater and, ever the doofus, becomes stuck for a moment with his head inside the garment — looking just like one of the faceless, depression-sowing Dementors from “Harry Potter.” It’s a very minor but honest variety of enchantment.