The Magicians Review: “Unauthorized Magic” and “The Source of Magic”

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By Karen Valenzuela, @VictoriaNoir89

Syfy’s tagline for their new show The Magicians, based on Lev Grossman’s successful fantasy trilogy, is the television equivalent of clickbait: “Magic is a drug. Get hooked.” Magic? Drugs? Oooo. On top of the fact that so many reviews have called it sexy Harry Potter, or grown up Harry Potter, or Harry Potter with sex and drugs…I could not wait to check this show out!

The Magicians, created and written by Sera Gamble (Supernatural) and John McNamara (In Plain Sight), is about a group of post-college twenty-somethings who attend Brakebills College of Magical Pedagogy, where only the particularly gifted are accepted. Once there, they learn to hone their craft. They quickly find that magic isn’t anything like what they’ve read about before. With it comes grave consequences.

In spite of the numerous references Lev Grossman makes in The Magicians trilogy to both “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Harry Potter,” including a fantasy world in main protagonist Quentin’s favorite book series that seems like a less-than-subtle rehashing of C.S. Lewis’ “Narnia,” The Magicians is certainly darker than both of those. It’s about moody, smart young people who are different (read: special). They’re all archetypal loners who drink a lot, smoke, and generally misbehave. Add onto that sarcasm, snark, pretention, and perhaps even a couple of cases of having a superiority complex. (Ugh. What a burden, being gifted with magical abilities. Hair flip.)

Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) is introduced sitting in a chair in some sort of doctor’s office, trying to persuade a man in a white coat that his weekend-long stint in the mental hospital has made him feel better. In spite of the hint that Quentin’s been in this chair before, he’s apparently released. We see him next at a typical college party, sitting by himself with the typical red cup, filled with beer or maybe jungle juice. (Don’t ask what that is because I still don’t know. Just trust me and never put it in your body, okay?) With his hair hanging over his face, his features set in gloom, and an obvious aversion to this type of situation, or really any situation that requires socializing, it seems apparent that our protagonist has some form of depression, and potentially some other social disorder on top of that. He holes himself up in his room with a first edition copy of his favorite fantasy series, “Fillory and Further,” rather than stay at the party.

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As the first episode progresses, we meet his best friend Julia (Stella Maeve) who has grown out of her Fillory obsession and looks to the future, enrolling in grad school, and generally being an adult in the real world, something she thinks Quentin is having trouble with.

Both of them are separately and magically lured to an entrance exam for Brakebills College, a super secret college that teaches young people how to magic. So, basically, if Hogwarts was a grad school and only invited eclectic, sort of weird, outcast type students.

While Quentin is admitted into the college, Julia fails the entrance exam, having to undergo a spell that’s supposed to wipe her memory of the experience. However, she cuts her arm to trigger her memory later. And while Quentin attends courses at Brakebills, Julia slips into a depression. Now that she knows Brakebills exists, that magic exists, and that she has the gift, nothing else seems to matter.

In the pilot episode especially, The Magicians seems to suffer from an imbalance between telling the story and introducing the world for viewers. It rushes through a good chunk of time, and in my opinion, makes the characters stay very archetypal because they aren’t given much material. Even throughout “The Source of Magic,” the second episode, I found myself forgetting about Julia’s storyline, which ran parallel to Quentin’s. I get what they were trying to do: show Quentin’s experience at Brakebills versus Julia’s experience in the outside world, being picked up by an underground group of witches called the Hedge Witches. But it felt like the writing was very messy and rushed in episodes one and two.

Because we don’t really get to see much of Julia’s despondency after being denied by Brakebills, or really get to know how much she’s affected by any of this, except for the short scene at her birthday party in which she walks around with slumped shoulders and dead eyes, the rest of her storyline – being discovered by the Hedge Witches and slipping into their ranks – felt like it fell flat. I forgot about her a few times throughout the second episode. Anytime it switched to her with the Hedge Witches, I found myself thinking, “Oh. You. Right.”

As far as the tone of The Magicians so far, it is dark, sarcastic, and hip. All of the students have their own cool air about them – or at least they seem to try – while Quentin seems to sort of shuffle around with his hands in his pockets and his head down, muttering annoyingly existential things like, “Life is raw. Everybody medicates.” Everyone at Brakebills seems to cling to the college and the acceptance they’ve found there. At least Quentin says as much. But because they’re super cool and in DGAF land, everyone else sort of just smirks and acts like a smart ass instead of saying it out loud. The show’s been called “sexy” as well, and while I see where they’re going with that, besides a scene where two characters having floating sex in the dorm (don’t try this at home, kids!) it’s less sexy and more cliché, and in one particular scene, their attempt at being edgy was totally pointless. That bathroom scene with Julia and the Hedge Witch recruiter was unnecessarily offensive.

Some of the other characters we’re introduced to in “Unauthorized Magic” and “The Source of Magic” bring bright spots to the show, and others are less bright. Eliot, the first person Quentin’s introduced to when he wanders onto the Brakebills campus for his entrance exam, is fantastic. He’s got an eye for aesthetics, superbly dressed, the perfect combination of sarcasm and hedonism. Penny, Quentin’s roommate and potential foil, is also a big player in the first episodes. He is the typical “I’ve been through unspoken bad stuff and I’m a bad boy so don’t talk to me” sort of guy. He apparently can read minds as well, so that seems like it kind of sucks for him. And he has floating sex with his pants on. Skill. Outside of that, he has potential, even if I really can’t figure out what the situation is between him and Quentin just yet. There’s time for that.

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Then there’s Alice. Or, if young Angela from The Office went to magic grad school. She’s presented as a loner, from a well-known magic family, and she’s always top of the magic class. She doesn’t like talking to other people, she dresses in tiny skirts and mohair sweaters, and she has a secret. Except we find out the secret in the first episode: Her brother died at Brakebills a few years earlier and she is there to find out what happened. It would be juicier if Alice were more likeable. Again, I expect that to change as the show progresses!

The Magicians is basically a show about twenty-somethings pretending they don’t care about anything, when they actually might care about at least some things, and then they can also do magic.

The concept is refreshing, but the execution is a bit lacking in some parts. With its somewhat messy writing, it seemed like they sort of just rushed everything, hoping the name and the tagline might do enough to bring in viewers.

However, there’s a lot to like about the series so far, and I’m eager to see what the next few episodes have to offer, once the characters have settled in and we’re fully entrenched in the world of The Magicians. I mean, Brakebills’ cool, dark rec area where the students were hanging out in multiple scenes was playing MGMT in the background. Super hip. And the costumes and cinematography is great, as well as the special effects. After I saw Defiance, I knew Syfy had it in them to put out another show that looked really, really cool. They did it with The Magicians. It looks awesome. And it must be said, Syfy’s version of The Beast was wicked rad. That entire scene was eerie and gruesome, with moths fluttering maniacally around him, covering his face as he slowly moved through the classroom. It was disgusting and bone chilling. And The Beast’s smiley face signature just adds to the creepy. Well done, show.

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The Magicians’ third episode, “Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting,” premieres on Monday, February 1 at 9pm on Syfy. And the first two episodes are up on Syfy’s website now. Check it out!

Unauthorized Magic: 2.5 out of 5 stars
The Source of Magic: 3 out of 5 stars


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