On one of my recent hour long commutes to work in the morning, I listened to Entertainment Weekly DJs and writers Dalton Ross and Jessica Shaw discuss the merits and problems of two new Syfy shows, Colony and The Magicians. Desperate for something to fill the mid-season void left by many of my other favorite shows, I was thrilled at the possibility of seeing a new show with Josh Holloway (Sawyer from Lost) in Colony, as well as what could only be described as “Harry Potter for adults” in The Magicians.
However, of the two, it was The Magicians that really enchanted me (and yes, pun so intended). And not because of the Harry Potter reference. It’s the fact that it is so far beyond Harry Potter that makes it so enjoyable.
Based on a trilogy of novels by Lev Grossman, The Magicians tells the story of Quentin Coldwater, a college senior on the verge of applying to graduate school who instead pursues an academic career in magic. This is different from the books in that Quentin and the other characters are only in high school in the novels. But I love that they have aged up the characters significantly; the time between ages 21 to 23 can be just as uncertain and anxiety inducing as the teen years (probably more so) and the older age of the characters gives them the opportunity to explore this, as well as the freedom to have adult characters in adult situations. Not having read the books, I can’t give you an idea of how different the series is from the books, just my impressions of the show.
Executive produced and written by Sera Gamble (former show runner for Supernatural), the show is five episodes in, and it would do the series a disservice for me to try to describe completely what has happened up to this point. In essence, Quentin Coldwater (played by Jason Ralph) and his best friend Julia Wickler (Stella Maeve) wete obsessed with books surrounding the magical world of Fillory through high school and college (hmmm…like many of us were with Harry Potter…). They were both mysteriously invited to sit for the entrance exam for Brakebills University, a magical graduate school in upstate New York, due to their innate and as of yet unrecognized magical abilities.
After the exam, we find out that Quentin passed, but Julia did not. Julia will have her memory erased so that she does not reflect on the experience and wonder why she didn’t get it; she secretly cuts her arm before the memory wipe, however, and the scar prompts her memories when she awakens back at home the next day.
Quentin meets a variety of students during his first few weeks at Brakebills, including Eliot Waugh, a second year student with telekinetic abilities and is one of the “Physical Kids” because of the type of magic he does; Margo Hanson, another second year student who is also a Physical Kid; Penny Adiyodi, his overly masculine first roommate at Brakebills who is psychic (and resents it because it requires peace and meditation); and Alice Quinn, the shy, super intelligent, Hermione Granger type girl everyone at a magical fantasy school has in their class. Oh, and she is also a light bender.
Although some of the members of Quentin’s little gang are total fantasy tropes, I tolerate it because I adore the characters. Eliot, played by Hale Appleman, is my absolutely favorite and a delight. I would seriously watch a spin off of just him, and maybe Margo as his sidekick, but an hour each week of The Eliot Show would make me happy. I’m not really sure how to describe him, other than that he is how I imagine Futurama‘s Hedonist Bot to be as a human. It is also great to have a gay character on a show and it not be the “main” thing about him. We learn he’s gay through small things he says, not because of stereotypical behavior. Actually, that’s not true – Appleman does such an amazing job of making Eliot’s sexuality not his defining characteristic that we didn’t know if he was gay or bisexual initially. We only knew he was gay based on articles promoting the show.
(20th Century Fox Film Corp/Syfy)
And sidebar – this is refreshing not just in The Magicians. Shows from animated cartoons like Steven Universe to The Walking Dead just have characters who are gay, rather than gay characters. They are also insecure, self-centered, jealous, self-conscious, joyful, funny, loving, sharp, clumsy, and awkward, among other traits. In the not so recent past, gay came first, as if it was the only thing that defined them. It makes me smile every time I watch a show and see how we are moving away from this outdated concept, and I hope we get to the point where the interviews with actors like Appleman aren’t about whether or not he’s honored to play a gay character, but how he feels about playing such a complex character in this magical world, because gay characters on television are commonplace.
OK, back to The Magicians. Appleman is fortunate enough to get some of the best lines in the show, and he definitely takes advantage of it. There’s a subtext to his character that we don’t quite get with Quentin and Julia, even though they are the main characters. I’m interested to see how his story plays out through the rest of the season.
When I say that there isn’t much subtext to Quentin and Julia, it’s because the show has made sure that we know there is nothing special about these two – they don’t have a destiny, they aren’t extraordinary, they aren’t meant to save the world with their magic, which is refreshing to see in a fantasy story. Ralph and Maeve do an excellent job with the scripts they are given, but the characters both tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves and can be mildly insufferable: Quentin suffers from depression, and Julia is an overachiever perfectionist who can’t deal with the fact that she was rejected from Brakebills. I think, though, that is intentional – you aren’t really supposed to cheer for the entitled, moody, whiny young adults who think finding meaning in live is lamenting the fact that they can’t find meaning in life. That’s not to knock Quentin’s depression though – on the contrary. When Quentin is affected and trying to find his purpose in a superficial way, he’s doing a very good job of masking that depression, which is a very typical behavior, and I’m glad that the writers don’t shy away from the fact that Quentin suffers from it. Ralph and Maeve really hit their strides in episode four in terms of evoking empathy from viewers when they both really allow themselves to be vulnerable. Eliot, Margo, Penny and Alice are a little more mysterious – you can tell something is there, but it’s not yet been fully revealed.
In terms of his depression, Quentin points out in the first episode that “everyone medicates.” It’s just that magic becomes the medication. Magic is a tool that they can use to navigate through the world in a different way, and recognize the value of living, rather than simply existing.
And as we go through the first five episodes, we see these concepts about magic develop. Initially, they were a little heavy handed, but I think they were trying to help viewers move beyond thinking about magic just in terms of Harry Potter and Narnia. We see magic change Quentin and Julia, as she begins slumming with hedge witches to learn the craft, while he becomes cruelly self-righteous about his attendance at Brakebills. Penny learns more about his rare discipline, and we see Alice desperately trying to find out what happened to her older brother Charlie who died at Brakebills just five years earlier. Surrounding all of this is a mysterious connection to the fictional (or is it?) magical world of Fillory, and an excessively creepy Beast Man who manages to infiltrate the school, with a head covered in moths, a snazzy suit, polished shoes that dance as he murders, and six fingers on his hands to cast spells that break a professor’s neck and rip out the Dean’s eyes (and make them into a smiley face afterwards…as you do).
The show really started to move to more metaphorical and layered perceptions of the role magic should play in life by episodes four and five. Episode 4, “The World in the Walls,” I would need to watch again and again to pick up on all of its nuances. Quentin finds himself in a mental institution, unsure as to whether or not anything he has experienced thus far at Brakebills is real or not. Suffice it to say, the phrase “the world in the walls” applied to at least four different walled in areas, primarily on a metaphysical level, and how the characters infiltrated each other’s spaces was existential and touching and beautiful and relatable.
And here is where Sera Gamble really shines. If you are a Supernatural fan, you know that her time as show runner for seasons 6 and 7 of that show really captured the horrific struggle Sam faced of going to Hell and back. Now, there, it was literal, but we related to Sam because we’ve all had our own metaphorical trips to visit Satan and had lived to tell the tale.
Gamble created that relatability again here with Quentin and some of the other characters. We all have had to struggle with the confines of the world within our walls, and how suffocating they can be, and that sometimes, even though you are so tired of fighting you could just give up, the fighting is what makes you alive and appreciative of the good and the bad. Magic simply enhanced the story.
I was going to stop with Episode 4, but Episode 5 also affected me. Monday was the two year anniversary of my mother’s passing from cancer, and what happens in Episode 5, the episode that played on that exact date? Quentin finds out that his father has brain cancer.
Awesome. Thanks, universe. Great timing.
Despite my misgivings, I had to know what was coming next for our group of grad students.
The episode was surprisingly comforting, as opposed to making me sob – Quentin tries desperately to find a cure for his father’s cancer through magic, and fights with his father about why he won’t pursue further treatment. I had the same fights, but logically understood, why my mother didn’t move forward with her treatments. And we all look for the “magic cure” – Quentin was just more literal in his pursuit than those outside of the magical world.
When he finds that he can’t cure the cancer, or that he could, but it would come at a high price, including changing his father’s soul, he asks Dean Fogg in frustration “What is the good of magic if you can’t use it to fix real problems?” The Dean replies that “We can fix some things. So we fix what we can.”
This is when I started weeping. Because Quentin went home to his father and used magic, in front of his father, to repair a model airplane that his father had made with his grandfather and that Quentin had accidentally broken as a little boy. So he used his magic to fix what could be fixed. Not the solution everyone wanted or needed, but perfect for that moment in their lives. There was a great deal of acceptance that was evident in that one small moment between father and son, and having gone through the experience of having a parent die, it was a very authentic way to not feel so helpless in that situation.
While the show has hit its stride in terms of metaphorical concepts related to magic, it still suffers from some of the episodes having too many overlapping storylines and difficult transitions between scenes. But I feel like this is something Gamble has struggled with since Supernatural; I would love to see the story slow down a bit and we get to know these characters a bit more. Yes, The Magicians was a trilogy of books, but it doesn’t need to only be three seasons on Syfy.
And I am glad that we are seeing the students do more actual magic. For the first couple of episodes, all the students did was drink…a lot. And have sexy time. And get high at all their parties. And chain smoke like they had never seen a Truth campaign commercial, even though they still have access to technology at their magical university and those ads are totally targeted to Millenials. Now, I was a part time grad student, so maybe all that does happen all the time when you live on campus. Some of that did happen when I was in school, I’m just not sure if it happened to that extent, otherwise no one would ever graduate. OK, the sex probably happens a lot whether you are part time or full time (but probably without the levitation part that happens at Brakebills). And I have heard so much about the Physical Kids’ “signature cocktail” since episode one that I kind of need the recipe for it now so that I will feel complete.
Yes, please, Eliot, I’ll have some of the signature cocktail…whatever the hell it is.
(Syfy & http://ewaughs.tumblr.com)
I also love that Syfy doesn’t censor the language on The Magicians. They use a conjugation of “fuck” at least 3-4 times in each episode, and it’s not just the students – at one point Dean Fogg tells Quentin, “Nah, I’m just fucking with you, Quentin.” Mind you, it’s full of asterisks in the closed captioning and it’s censored in that you don’t hear them completely say the “ck” sound, but it is very clear what word they are saying. There are also some great lines, like “well, we’re just getting deep-dicked by the universe – lie back and try to enjoy it.”
This is definitely not Harry Potter or Narnia.
And that’s precisely why I love it. If you took the magic out, I’d still care about these characters and their accomplishments and struggles. The magic certainly gives the writers more freedom to move beyond a realistic setting, but it’s not necessary.
I feel Gamble is trying to tell us after each episode what Dean Fogg tells Quentin when he first agrees to come to Brakebills:
We can teach you magic; what you choose to do with it beyond here is up to you.
And I can’t wait for next week’s lesson.