TV Review: ‘The Magicians’

Syfy brings 'The Magicians' to TV
Courtesy Syfy

Syfy’s “The Magicians,” an adaptation of Lev Grossman’s trilogy of acclaimed fantasy novels, rushes pell-mell into the books’ plots, and moves around a few of their most prominent elements; you certainly can’t say the show is shy about rearranging the story’s foundations. Yet in the first two episodes of the drama, an over-reliance on mechanically contrived incident hinders the show’s ability to create the kind of emotional intensity and intelligently wrought suspense that were the hallmarks of the novels, and in certain key roles, some actors fail to create a spell.

Grossman’s tale is, at its lacerated heart, the story of isolated and intellectually gifted adolescents trying to figure out how to connect with one another and see the wonder, danger and possibility beyond their individual concerns. Since he was a kid, the smart but depressed New Yorker Quentin Coldwater had escaped into a series of novels describing a mythical land called Fillory, where talking animals and the brave children of the Chatwin family had a series of haunting and mythical adventures.

Quentin finds out that Fillory is real, and that he’s capable of using magic, but those revelations don’t put an end to his problems. In fact, his education is just beginning. The scary, exhilarating journey starts when he’s whisked off to Brakebills College, where he meets an array of college students (in the books, teens) who are every bit as smart and cynical as he is. Thanks to Brakebills and other adventures, he begins to acquire the kind of wisdom that, over time, allows him to become a complex hero with real perspective on what matters. 

But that’s down the road. When the show begins, Quentin can be difficult to love; in the books, his capacity for self-pity is not insignificant. Many a critical essay has been written about how the characters around Quentin are often more dramatically compelling than he is, and that proves to be the case in the series as well. “The Magicians” makes the wise decision to amp up the roles of Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and Julia (Stella Maeve), although Janet has been renamed Margo (Summer Bishil) and has little to do in the first two installments.

While the show is more of an ensemble piece, it doesn’t improve on the protagonist found in the books; Quentin is different here, not better. Jason Ralph plays him as a jittery, awkward guy whose nerves make him tongue-tied and anxious, but there are few deeper layers detectable in the performance or writing at this stage. Quentin’s intellect is barely mentioned, his tenacity is less interesting than it should be, and there’s almost no context given to his troubled emotional state, which involves a crush on his best friend’s girlfriend. Even though he’s not necessarily the primary focus of the story, this version of Quentin is not a reliably engaging anchor thus far.

Hale Appleman, on the other hand, is terrific as the acerbic Eliot, Quentin’s first Brakebills friend. Appleton makes it possible to see the wary intelligence underneath Eliot’s brittle, bon vivant exterior, and in another piece of good casting, Arjun Gupta brings verve and charisma to his role as Penny, the wild card among the incoming Brakebills class. (“Everything you think is so boring, I replace it with dubstep,” is the psychic Penny’s most memorable put-down of Quentin.) Stella Maeve shows potential as Julia, but her character, among others, is adversely affected by the show’s furiously rushed pace, and its awkward compression of the author’s story.

Few TV executives want to greenlight a show when the entire pitch revolves around moral education and emotional nuance, and to be sure, there’s much more than that in Grossman’s novels, which are well paced and occasionally truly exciting. But the qualities that won the books passionate fans have less to do with their fantastical action scenes or talking rams than with the seriousness with which the novels treat the relationships and dilemmas at their core. In the trio of books, Quentin and his friends experience disillusionment, the deaths of loved ones and endure their share of extraordinary trials and ordinary, stupid mistakes. Through it all, Grossman makes the problems and discoveries at Brakebills and in Fillory seem every bit as real and vivid as the kids’ distressed or deliriously happy emotional states. Imagine the second season of “The Leftovers” as a self-aware fantasy novel, and you’re halfway there.

But there’s little time for texture or complexity in the first two episodes of “The Magicians,” which cherry-pick a series of important incidents from the novel and often fail to import the psychological or philosophical depth that accompanied each plot point. Even the production design seems more cheap than spare, and tends to make the mythical Brakebills look like a bland store selling Ikea knockoffs. This is a story that hinges on character development, but the on-screen versions of these characters and their worlds are frequently superficial. Worse, the characters exist to serve the story, when it should be the other way around. 

The result of all the compression and paring down is that “The Magicians” can’t create the kind of compassionately rendered suspense found in the novels, because the plights of the TV characters are rarely depicted with specificity and palpable emotional stakes. Even suspense and sense of adventure are sometimes lacking: When it comes to situations involving physical danger or magical challenges, some book incidents have been cut completely, and one of the novel’s most famously terrifying moments is less gripping than it should be.

In the second episode, there’s a long scene of dialogue that lays out many of the show’s key themes about destiny and the nature of courage — and grinds the drama’s fitful momentum to a stop, partly because most of what is discussed would be better off as subtext, and partly because Ralph and scene partner Esme Bianco fall flat as the characters they’re playing. Several highly skilled recurring guest actors show far more promise, particularly Kacey Rohl and David Call as new associates of Julia’s, who display real presence and swagger in their roles. Anne Dudek, who crops up in a small part as a Brakebills instructor, brings the show alive every time she appears, as does Rick Worthy, who plays the head of the college.

The shorthand description of Grossman’s books is that they’re the HBO version of the Harry Potter tales, and that’s not inaccurate, but “an emotionally acute and bittersweet autopsy of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels” might be an even better way to think of the Magicians trilogy. On the page, few sagas have had more insight into the uses of fantastical imagination, and the eventual need to transcend one’s heroes and heroines.

In the early going, here, however, “The Magicians” squeezes out a lot of the novels’ insight and wonder in favor of a somewhat conventional quest to defeat a nasty villain, and a series of omissions and additions that, in many cases, aren’t justified. This is a story that explores the exceptional and true nature of ability, but so far, its limitations are all too apparent.

TV Review: 'The Magicians'

(Series; Syfy, Mon. Jan. 25, 9 p.m.)


Filmed in Vancouver by Universal Cable Prods.


Executive producers, Michael London, Janice Williams, Sera Gamble, John McNamara; director, Mike Cahill; writers, Gamble, McNamara; camera, Vanja Černjul; costume designer, Magali Guidasci; production designer, Will Bates; music, David Sandefur; editor, Sue Blainey; casting, Carrie Audino, Laura Schiff, Helen Geier, Ryan Glorioso. 60 MIN


Stella Maeve, Summer Bishil, Hale Appleman, Jason Ralph, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Arjun Gupta, Anne Dudek, Rick Worthy, Esme Bianco, Michael Cassidy, Spencer Garrett, David Call, Kacey Rohl, Tembi Locke, Hiro Kanagawa

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  1. Rip: That is my biggest problem with the show. I am enjoying it overall, but it definitely falls into the tired setup of “everyone here is gorgeous, and to show that someone is a nerd, we might mess up their hair or clothes, or give them glasses.”

    Casting a more realistic range of appearances would have added so, so much to the show. It’s just hard to take a scene seriously where the ‘hot people’ are making fun of the ‘shy nerd girl’ when the nerd girl is insanely pretty, and wearing a short short flirty dress and designer platforms. While it may be planned as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for those of us who grew up nerdy and mocked, it also rings as totally fake and unlike our actual experiences.

    Maybe this is what a super popular person might imagine a nerd to be, but we know that wasn’t us.

    Not even our fictional nerd hero(ines) would apparently be seen in the same hallway as us.

  2. Melissa says:

    I would like season 2 to start today. Can you start the second season sooner please?

  3. Yes, I realize this is a shallow way to consider a new show — “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” and all that — but I took one look at the cast photo that accompanies this review and thought: “Dear god, not ANOTHER show cast with male and female models who have all the personality of a dish towel. No.Thank.You.

  4. Cathy Beck says:

    Thank you Mo Ryan. I’m crushed but you nailed the issues I found with the pilot. Also, a friend of the family plays Margo and I have been re-reading the books to figure out why I don’t remember the character. So thank you for pointing this out! I’m going to stick with it for awhile in hopes that it will sort out some of the issues although mis-cast Quentin is a hurdle that it will be difficult to clear. I have to remember Anna Torev in her first season to keep my hopes alive.

  5. jpmist says:

    YIkes, that was some A+ grad school review you did there. As a fan of the books, I’m more than happy with the pilot episode (and yes, it was a pilot with all the compromises that implies) even if only because it was attempted at all. Maybe the strength of the books for the reviewer were “the relationships and dilemmas at their core” but for me that was secondary to the imaginative settings and plotting the books offered.

    I wish the reviewer had given some credit to the idea that in the initial episodes of a 3 book adaptation with so many lead characters, a certain amount of exposition simply has to happen. That it wasn’t done exactly as the author might have chosen is not necessarily a flaw, but simply choices made. She’ll have to agree along with the many Reddit fans that with the minor exception of Alice being cast as a bit too “hot” every character was spot on, especially Quentin.

    Of the many things I enjoyed about the books was the interesting life dilemma posed – if you could do magic, well, what then? I trust the series will touch on that and can’t wait for it to begin.

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