Season One (Universal Home Video)
The Magicians is sort of like what Hogwarts Academy from the Harry Potter books would be like if it were visualized by MTV – lots of gorgeous college-aged students misbehaving and experimenting with spells, sex and bacchanalia.
This new series, which debuted on SyFy Channel last December, is based on the trilogy of novels by Lev Grossman – The Magicians (2009), The Magician King (2011) and The Magician’s Land (2014). Grossman’s world is certainly a darker place than JK Rowling’s world, with things like murder, drug usage, suicide, rape and pedophilia all becoming significant plot points.
Yet, in its own, slightly more mature way, Brakebills College, the school for magic hidden somewhere in northern New York, is every bit as seductively watchable as Hogwarts.
While The Magicians is pretty much an ensemble piece, with seven main characters and another ten or so in significant recurring roles, it essentially revolves around two young students. Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) and Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve) are young college students (he’s going to Princeton, she is going to Yale) who have bounded since childhood as lifelong fans of a fantasy book series about a world of magic called Fillory and Further. They are platonic best friends – he wants more but she is involved with another guy.
Suddenly they are offered the opportunity to apply for Brakebills, a secret school of magic. Quentin is accepted into the school, Julia is not. The first season revolves around Quentin learning about magic as dangerous forces – particularly a mysterious monster known as The Beast – start to pay attention to him. Julia in the meantime is trying desperately to get back in to Brakebills, throwing in with the magical underworld of Manhattan.
At Brakebills, Quentin falls in with a new crowd. There is Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), the beautiful but shy magic savant. His roommate and frenemy is Penny (Arjun Gupta), another freshman who has the specialty of being able to travel through space and time. Penny’s lover is Kady (Jade Taylor), a student with a big secret. The upperclassmen are Eliot (Hale Appleman) and Margo (Summer Bishil), the hard-partying bffs (he’s gay, but they are close as lovers).
In the meantime Julia is stuck in Manhattan, bouncing back and forth between other magic groups, learning both skills and also the subterfuge of magic as most of the people she deals with somehow come to double cross her.
Julia and Quentin’s paths merge again when both learn that the world of the Fillory books are real, but much darker than the books had let on. They work together to find the way to Fillory and try to save that world from the shadow of the beast.
It is a fascinating, sometimes even overstuffed storyline (all this happens in 13 episodes!). This is good and bad. The action is brisk, the storyline rarely flags. On the other hand, the show has a bit of a short attention span. Major subplots, like a major character’s father contracting terminal brain cancer, or the battle one of the stars was having with the competing “hedge” witches, get dropped or forgotten with little or no resolution. Major romantic entanglements are delicately cultivated over several episodes and then suddenly ripped apart with very little foreshadowing, or even cause.
The cast is likable, charismatic, and nearly completely unknown. Ralph is handsomely forlorn in the mail lead, while Maeve’s does a good job in a character which is more complicatedly layered. Taylor Dudley is also quite likeable and brings a little sweetness and innocence to the plot, while Appleman and Bishil are a hoot as the older, more jaded, sensation-starved students.
In the second half of the season every once in a while a slightly-known c-celeb will show up in a recurring role: 90s sitcom sidekick Amy Pietz of Caroline in the City plays one of the witches’ screwed-up mom, Patti Duke’s son Mackenzie Astin is a self-help counselor for magicians and Charles Shaughnessy of The Nanny portrays the fatally flawed author who wrote the Fillory books. However, the relative anonymity of the cast actually works best for the series, making its otherworldly atmosphere feel more realistic without the distraction of going, “Hey, isn’t that?” every time an actor joins the action.
Though the series is greatly intriguing through most of its run, they end up with a cliffhanger ending that not only leaves all of the characters in extremely precarious positions, but it leaves the audience in a lurch. Literally, the cliffhanger ends in the middle of a scene.
It’s fine to try to leave some things up in the air to get people to tune in for season two (although it is annoying as hell when said series does not end up having a season two), but in this case pretty much everything has changed. The audience is stuck with a perturbed sense of “WTF?” which will last until season two starts in the winter. This is assuming that the audience sticks it out or ever remembers what was happening months from now.
I don’t think that will be a problem, though. We’ve come to care about these characters enough that we’ll undoubtedly show up when they return, to find out what kind of hard work they will have to put in to survive their perilous situations.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2016 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 19, 2016.