Blu-ray Review: The Magicians - Season One

Syfy's adaptation of Lev Grossman's novel is nice to look at but its spoiled characters are hard to sympathize with.

By , Columnist
Although it unashamedly draws inspiration from Harry Potter, Lev Grossman’s novel, The Magicians, is a quirky, risqué mix of supernatural fantasy and college soap opera that is squarely aimed at a more mature demographic than J.K. Rowling’s magical adventure stories. In its first season, Syfy’s adaptation captures much of that with its free-spirited approach to sexuality, its strong language and occasional moments of mild gore. Yet, its characters are so self-absorbed that you might find it hard to care about their fate.

Like the Potter stories, much of The Magicians centres on a school of magic. While Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, a.k.a. Brakebills University, appears innocent enough at the beginning of the series, though, it turns out to be every bit the den of iniquity that parents have traditionally feared university will be. Accordingly, many of the students seem to be more interested in indulging in sex, drugs and booze than mastering the amazing talents that got them into Brakebills in the first place. Some don’t even seem to want to be there, which is odd because they live in the kind of accommodation and surroundings that only American Ivy League universities can boast and they don’t seem to pay any fees for privilege. 

The two main characters - Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), a depressive loner who’s obsessed with a series of children’s fantasy novels, and his BFF Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve) - are both on track to attend a prestigious American school when they are drawn to Brakebills just in time to take the entrance exam. Each has already exhibited enhanced magical abilities, which has attracted the attention of the Brakebill’s administrators in what the opening scenes suggest is an hour of need.

Quentin passes his exam and gets a glimpse of the danger in the first episode. With his distinctly un-cool classmate Alice Quinn (Olivia Taylor Dudley) he invokes a spell that opens a doorway to another dimension. From there comes a ruthless killer, nicknamed The Beast, who hides his face in a flock of moths and has a taste for dismemberment.

Julia doesn’t fare better than her friend. After flunking the Brakebills exam, she becomes as depressed as her Quentin looks and tries to find another outlet for her talents to prove that she should have got into the school. This causes her to cross paths with a dangerous witch who operates on the underground circuit and things go downhill from there.

Despite having the ability to do wonderful things, Quentin and Julia are committed to courses of action that leave them joyless for most of the season. As a result, neither is a particularly admirable character. Quentin and Alice predictably get together several episodes in and the former says this makes him happier than he’s ever been. You wouldn’t believe it from his mopey expression, however, and what ensures is an awkward coupling that neither party is emotionally equipped to maintain.

The other main characters aren’t very likeable, either. Penny (Arjun Gupta) spends so much time being annoyed with everyone around him that it gets annoying in the absence of a backstory that explains why. Meanwhile, inseparable socialites Eliot (Hale Appleman) and Margo (Summer Bishil) seem to be solely interest in hedonism until they finally become instrumental in the story's outcome towards the end of the season, which is too bad because Appleman has no shortage of charisma.

Nonethless, while it’s hard to be sympathetic to this series' central characters, the season is worth watching to the end so you can appreciate the way it cleverly twists the tropes established by famous stories that take place in fantasy realms, particularly The Chronicles of Narnia. It also pokes fun at obsessive nerds and is impressive to look at with the clever juxtaposing of Brakebill’s beautiful setting and the dingy city streets where Julia finds that magic isn’t always as uplifting as the word implies. The final few episodes also make up for the slow middle section and set up a bloody cliffhanger that offers the potential for an intriguing second season.

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Michael Simpson is a freelance writer, editor, presenter, researcher, instructor, gadget freak and sci-tech consultant based in British Columbia’s beautiful Okanagan Valley. Formerly from the UK, he’s converted from tea to coffee and written and presented on film, TV, science, nature, technology,…

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