It’s always a pleasure to find a show that’s a lot better than you might have expected and, simultaneously, to have a channel steady its aim after being frustratingly erratic.
Both happen Monday with the two-episode premiere of The Magicians on Syfy. The series is based on the best-selling books by Lev Grossman but, as with most adaptations, viewers are more likely to come to it without the source material.
In the case of The Magicians, its bigger task is to sidestep the inevitable Harry Pottercomparisons — the study of magic at a mysterious, impressive magic school; a campus divided not so much by houses but areas of specialty; dark forces ever at the gates of the school, etc.
While there will always be whiffs of Potter et al around the edges of the fictitious Brakebills University, the series separates itself rather easily by portraying students in their 20s — mostly with a darker (depressed, troubled) mental starting point — who are hotter and into drinking. Basically, a real college with magic. Despite a fairly hilarious sex scene where the participants’ pants were still on but the sex and moaning happened anyway – as if by magic! – The Magicians manages to get all the other scenes right. In fact, its ability to be entertaining and compelling with remarkable consistency in the first two episodes given to critics is a real and pleasant surprise.
Created and written by Sera Gamble (Supernatural) along with John McNamara (Aquarius, In Plain Sight), The Magicians fairly nimbly gets the story rolling by introducing us to Quentin (Jason Ralph, Aquarius) and his best friend, Julia (Stella Maeve, Chicago P.D.). The two got into the kids books about magic, “Fillory and Further,” when they were younger while also realizing they were both different, both possessing at least some cursory magic skills. But as Julia moved away from all of that and became a high achiever about to get into the Ivy League, Quentin got lost in life and in his head. He’s on meds now, never fitting in but sometimes falling out (and into a mental hospital).
The Magicians is thus a coming-of-age story a bit more advanced than that of Harry Potter, with college-age adults struggling for an identity and falling, in this case, under the alluring throb of New York City. Gamble rather quickly moves the story along to introduce how Brakebills University is on the other side of some ethereal existence and that if its faculty think you’ve got what it takes, they lead you to the college (and if it turns out your magic skills are more mundane than natural, your memory is wiped and you’re returned to the boring real world).
With Quentin struggling to stay in Brakebills while Julia (who manages to create a marker of the event, thus proving to herself that it was real) struggles to accept her rejection, they both find side roads that promise some interesting (and yes, magical) connections other than just the story of Quentin finally fitting in somewhere.
The special effects are better and more convincing than expected in The Magicians (which goes a long way toward making it more interesting) and one of them introduces a dark, malevolent force accidentally summoned through the Brakebills security by Quentin and Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), a magician with a family history of magic, that is genuinely well conceived; the arrival of this character, or being, should be a compelling storyline.
While Brakebills itself provides a number of interesting characters, from the cocksure Eliot (Hale Appleman), who reluctantly becomes Quentin’s guide to this new world, to bad boy Penny (Arjun Gupta) and the aforementioned Alice, the “outside” forces (some possibly good, others clearly evil) are also well populated. It’s a mere two episodes, but The Magicians provided enough evidence that it has enough talent and ambition to keep the surprises coming.