The Magicians is no Harry Potter or The Chronicles Of Narnia, although it shares some basic plotlines with both. But that’s not a bad thing. Yes, The Magicians is about students learning magic at a school, and within that premise is an angle about a door that leads people to a magical place. But what sets it apart is that the protagonists here are all in their 20s and hence they deal with a whole set of different emotions and problems than the children in the other two.
Based on the novels by Lev Grossman, The Magicians is very much an adult dark fantasy. In the 13-episode first season, some of the best stories are those that explore tough issues like mental health, grief, sexual assault and human relationships – all interwoven with magic and spells, of course.
(FYI: Sera Gamble, who co-created The Magicians for television, was a writer and producer for Supernatural – a series that has perfected the formula for mixing family drama and otherworldly elements.)
The series kicks off with the introduction of a very lonely young adult named Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph). He has felt like an outsider all his life; so much so, he checks into a mental hospital for his ultra-depressive state. At the time we meet him, Quentin is thinking about furthering his studies but has no particular interest in anything other than magic and a book series called Fillory And Further.
Then like magic, for want of a better word, he ends up at the mysterious Brakebills University where he takes an entrance exam. He finds out that Brakebills is a place that grooms magicians and is located in New York, but hidden from plain sight. The chosen students are invited to take the test if they have an innate magical ability, which will then be honed at the school. Spellcasting in this show involves some crazy hand movements that might evoke laughter. Well, at least, until you get used to it.
As it happens, Quentin’s best friend Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve), an attractive and intelligent young woman all set to study at Yale, also walks into a Brakebills hall to take the same exam. But unlike Quentin, she does not pass.
The friends separate with some bad blood. Unable to let go of the fact there is real magic in the world and that she has been denied access to it, Julia seeks out other means to learn magic and spells.
The series does take a smart storytelling approach to show how Quentin and Julia, with such opposing personalities and methods, respectively study magic to arrive where they do by the end of the season. And if you’re thinking of the obvious scenario – which is what I mistakenly did – then take note it’s not that at all.
This is what The Magicians does well; just like a good magic trick, it’s quite adventurous and throws the audience a few surprises. Take Quentin, for example.
In the process of creating lead characters like him, it is almost instinctual for writers to conjure up a depressed super-nerd who is somehow special. Here, the series breaks away and often tells its audience that magic comes from pain – the worse one’s childhood is, the better a magician he or she makes.
Quentin is someone who can check the box about growing pains with a bold marker pen. But as the series progresses, you see him come to a realisation we would not have guessed – that he may not be the guy who saves the day. There is, of course, always hope for him with the series being renewed for a second season … though, how brilliant would it be to make the lead character turn out not to be the hero of the story after all?
What is equally unexpected is what The Magicians does with Julia. From the get go, we dislike her. Hey, the girl has everything and we have been programmed to dislike characters like her through our years of faithful TV-watching.
Julia may be the reason why the show stumbles in the early episodes – like, who cares for this desperate person who agrees to learn magic from a guy who assaults her in a public toilet? Have some self-respect, woman. That is what we’re led to think, until her story takes off and veers in a direction that shows us the other side of magic and its consequences. And those are really bad.
The Magicians doesn’t focus only on these two – it’s a school, so there are other students of course. Unfortunately, the series does fall back on stereotypes where Quentin’s schoolmates are concerned. You get the brash guy who likes to pick on Quentin, the shy but smart girl (she wears huge glasses, in case you need to be clued in on the fact that she’s smart and shy) who is a much better magician than anyone should be in their first year, and a street-smart girl who makes dark dealings.
Fortunately, true to the series’ form of delivering the unexpected, there are moments when Quentin is the least interesting of his mates. (OK, to be honest, the characters do take turns at being the most annoying.)
Another hook for The Magicians comes at the end of the first episode when the villain is revealed. Simply called The Beast, his face is hidden by moths in flight and his entrance is marked by a tense piece of music.
He enters Quentin’s class through a mirror and does some unbelievable damage, including gouging out the Dean’s eyeballs via magic – they’re not kidding about the mature audience bit, we tell you (the special effects team also has mad skills).
But who is The Beast, and where did he come from? What part will Quentin and his friends play in taking him down? Why does a fictional character from Fillory And Further keep appearing in Quentin’s dreams, warning him of something? Curiouser and curiouser!
Don’t be under the illusion that The Magicians is without flaws – a couple of its minor subplots can be dispensed with – but it has more than enough stage presence to get its viewers’ full attention.
All 13 episodes of The Magicians are available on iflix.