[This is a review of The Magicians season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Syfy isn’t shying away from the ambitious material this TV season. Following the success of Childhood’s End and The Expanse, both based on sweeping sci-fi books, the follow-up is an adaptation of Lev Grossman’s book trilogy, The Magicians. The new series has been labeled as the grown-up Harry Potter but other than similar origin stories (a misfit boy/young adult ushered into the world of magic, a magical school and an ominous villain singling them out), nothing can be further from the truth. Even the Year 7’s at Hogwarts didn’t dream of floating dorm sex or mystic narcotics. The Magicians takes real world twentysomething issues and throw some serious magic in the mix.
Awkward loner Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) spends his weekends at a mental health hospital and his weeks ducking real world interaction. His best friend Julia (Stella Maeve) is torn between growing up and trying to drag Quentin along with her. Quentin’s obsession with the children’s fantasy story “Fillory and Further” (think Chronicles of Narnia but more sinister) pulls him away from real adult relationships and responsibilities. When both Quentin and Julia unwittingly end up at Brakebill University, the grad school for the magician kind, their worlds are cracked open by the realization that magic is real. While Quentin passes spectacularly, Julia fails her exam and is forcefully sent home. Now on opposite sides of a magical line, Julia takes it the hardest and is driven to get back into Brakebills, at seemingly any cost.
While Quentin and Julia’s story could be a central relationship, shortly after we enter Brakebills, a flurry of new characters and motivations are thrown our way. Quentin, smug with a new sense of belonging, makes quick friends with Eliot (Hale Appleman), mean girl Margo (Summer Bishil), and is intrigued by magic wunderkind Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley). While it could be enough to follow misfit magicians navigating magical grad school and their tumultuous twenties, The Magicians opens the lens wider to introduce the Big Bad, an unknown enemy called The Beast who has his sights set on Quentin.
The first hour of the pilot skims over the finer aspects of going to a magical school like Brakebills, missing the chance to create an epic universe, in favor of hitting multiple plot points at once. The juggling act of storylines keeps things moving at a decent pace, but while it keeps the story intriguing, we’re missing the substance of the characters and how they ended up at Brakebills. Even Quentin, who sports a lot of deer-in-headlights awkward looks and pretty fantastic hair, we barely get to know him in the first hour. Yet, enough doors are opened to leave the audience leaning in for a little more so we can safely assume the scope of a new magical world and those who play in it will be explored fully.
The Magicians appeals to any who ever imagined stepping into the world of Narnia or riding a tornado into Oz. Or perhaps more accurately, whoever wanted to take a few classes at Hogwarts. It has the familiar feeling beloved by readers everywhere – transporting the ordinary to an extraordinary journey, the discovery of a place where you finally fit in. Unlike other similar shows though, it’s hard to love The Magicians just yet until we can get to like the heroes or antiheroes. There are some witty moments that promise meatier content. The Magicians takes the first hours to lay the groundwork and we can only hope gives itself a chance to pull the audience in completely.
The Magicians continues next Monday with 'Consequences of Advance Spellcasting' on Syfy.