Why The Magicians should be your next box set
James R | On 23, Jun 2018
With The Magicians Season 5 out now in the UK, we look back at Season 1 – and why you should catch up. Warning: This contains mild spoilers.
“Quit dicking around and do some goddamn magic!” shouts The Dean (Rick Worthy) of magical school Brakebills in the opening episode of The Magicians. It’s the kind of line you would never hear in Harry Potter, and sets the tone for what emerges as an often ridiculous but absurdly realistic take on magical spells and supernatural powers. Hogwarts, this ain’t. Dumbledore, he isn’t. But the idea of Harry Potter for adults is far more entertaining, and much more serious, than that trashy premise might suggest. Based on the novel of the same name by Lev Grossman, Syfy’s series is adapted for the screen by Sera Gamble and John McNamara – when a show boasts the credit “from the creators of Lois & Clark”, you know you’re in for a good time.
It follows Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), your typical oustider protagonist, who spends his life not feeling connected to the world and instead obsessing over the fictional universe of Fillory & Further, a series of novels he read as a kid. That they turn out to be based in truth, and that this alternate universe poses a threat to ours, should come as no surprise to students of the genre – nor should the fact that Quentin quickly becomes a student himself, learning at Brakebills how to hone his powers and defend the world. But what does come as a surprise is the way that the series uses the touchpoint of Fillory to ground everything that follows.
That’s partly in the way that the books form a connection between Quentin and his best friend, Julia (Stella Maeve). When she’s rejected by Brakebills, they find themselves separated, and Julia, desperate to prove that she’s good enough to be accepted, falls in with a bunch of dodgy, dark magicians. The result pits the two on opposite sides of the story, but it’s only a matter of time until they reunite once again, and it’s Fillory that does it – not only with its promise of a Narnia-like realm, where humans carry a regal authority, but with their shared love of the idea of something different. Both want to be special, want to make a difference, the kind of magic lovers who would be die-hard Harry Potter fans, if Harry Potter existed in this show.
But The Magicians isn’t that story, and it ruthlessly undermines the idea of Chosen Ones with a downbeat, often nasty edge. This is a programme that introduces gods and goddesses, that toys with fate and destiny, that dreams of happy endings and fulfilling ones potential, but it’s also a show that rips out people’s eyes and deliberately takes left turns at every narrative crossroad. The person you least expect becomes a king; the deities we’re promised are tricksters in disguise; the villains we meet aren’t guaranteed to be defeated; and sometimes, power only comes from the most disgusting of biological sources.
As Quentin meets fellow students and Julia teams up with fellow outcasts, this strange world becomes more complex, as every addition to the ensemble brings diversity in powers and sexuality, not to mention their own shadow lurking on their shoulder.
There’s Alice, a naturally gifted magician who becomes Quentin’s love interest, played with intensity and honesty by Olivia Taylor Dudley. Her neglected home life, though, leaves her over-working and stressed, in need of support that Quentin often fails to provide. Hale Appleman brings comic relief as the sardonic senior student Eliot, but has a drinking problem even bigger than his talents – one that gets even worse when apart from Margo (Summer Bishil), his charismatic best friend and the only one who seems capable of dealing with her problems. Completing our main quartet is Penny (Arjun Gupta), a suave traveler, who can potentially jump between worlds – but discovers his gift carries a fatal risk that leaves him in a perpetual limbo of not knowing whether to strengthen his powers or not.
Within the opening few episodes, we’ve seen them at their best and worst, including a floating sex scene that makes it clear this is a decidedly grown-up affair. We also meet The Beast, a powerful bad guy with a plummy voice (courtesy of Charles Mesure), a head surrounded by a swarm of moths, and a vengeful streak that wastes no time in displaying its brutally real consequences. Even the introduction of Josh Hoberman (Trevor Einhorn), a nerdy former pupil of Brakebills with an amusing line in blunt anecdotes, can’t shake the intimidating threat of the mysterious sorcerer, whose identity is tied up in Filly’s history, but not at the expense of his very immediate, very violent present.
The show takes its time to assemble its disparate plot strands, but while the tone is uneven, the pacing doesn’t waver, balancing character-driven episodes (one chapter sees Quentin locked in an institute for the insane) with school-dictated rites of passage, such as the The Trials, which require our characters to learn to work together. Cursed blades, demons, animal transformations and magical fountains that connect worlds all pop up along the way, not to mention the pressure of each pupil being mentored in their particular brand of magical skill.
Director Mike Cahill (Another Earth and I Origins) kicks the series off with just the right balance of the weird and the mundane, and the way the show builds its magic incantations around tiny finger movements, rather than flourishing wands, makes for a fresh, distinctly low-key take on magic; the CGI set pieces are impressive, but they don’t distract from the emotional entanglements or mental health issues underlying the action.
It all builds to them trying to bring down The Beast, a task so dangerous that to have the best possible chance they literally bottle their emotions – precisely the kind of blend of spells and sentiment that makes this complex, messed-up story work. Threesomes are as likely as hexes to erupt and bring down the whole quest, and when time travel becomes part of the twisting narrative, it only underscores the repeated sacrifices that have been made to get to this point.
Somehow, alongside all this, The Magicians also has a fondness for meta-jokes, making quips about the programme’s budget, references to Groundhog Day and Doctor Who, and the narrative structure that the show is following. The result is a series that is, in terms of subjects, the sheer number of characters, and tone, objectively all over the place, sometimes problematically so: over the course of its maiden season, someone loses their hands, someone else is left to bleed out on the floor, another is sexually assaulted, and revenge for past trauma becomes a driving force for both our scary enemy and our unlikely hero. Oh, and there’s a wedding.
“Quit dicking around and do some goddamn magic!” cries The Dean at the start of The Magicians, an outburst that’s as laughable as it is entertaining. But Syfy’s show ultimately finds the line between trashy and smart, rooting its ambitious epic in the fact that even when people can do magic, that doesn’t stop them from being untrustworthy or selfish. It’s that universal truth that ties everything together, as we follow a magic lovers into a fantastical reality that isn’t any better than the one they’re trying to escape. At its heart stands Quentin, a cliched protagonist who would love to live out the familiar, stereotypical journey and be crowned a Chosen One. The more The Magicians goes on, though, the more it deviates from that path, and the more intriguing, and compelling, it gets. A bold unanswered question at the close of the season exposes his childhood dreams as exactly that – and leaves you wondering with an open mouth where the show could possibly go from there.
The Magicians: Season 1 to 5 are available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.