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.