Review: The Magicians 1×1 (US: Syfy)

Harry Potter goes to university

In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, Syfy. Starts January 25 2016
In the UK: Not yet acquired

From many points of view, most of them commercial, Harry Potter was a great franchise. It made it to seven books and eight movies for starters, which very few other franchises managed to achieve; it also managed to reach that end point without getting worse – in some ways it even got better – which is practically unique, unless you’re a dyed in the wool Fast and the Furious or Friday the 13th fan.

But it did finish, which is an obvious problem. It was also for kids and starred kids, who as well as appreciably getting older over time, precluded any possibility of sexy time except in the darkest, nastiest niches of Internet fan fiction. It was also about English people.

As such, The Magicians is an obvious attempt to fix all those issues while sticking as close to the Harry Potter template as possible. Based on the series of novels by Lev Grossman, it sees the daftly named Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), a fantasy-book reading college graduate, discover that magic isn’t just tricks involving coins – it’s real.

As there’s a university that offers a postgraduate course in magic, he enrolls at this ‘Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy’ to be trained as a magician and to maybe make sexy time with the witches. Unfortunately for Quentin, his childhood friend Julia (Stella Maeve from Golden Boy) flunks the entrance exam, so doesn’t make it to Brakebills. Instead, she gives up on her previous life, and instead goes searching for magic elsewhere.

Little does either Quentin or Julia know, however, that there’s an arch enemy no one will talk about at Brakebills who’s laid waste to a lot of the magic community, reducing the final year of pupils to a class of four. Is he related to the group that want to recruit Julia? Only time will tell…

Despite being an obvious Harry Potter knock-off with delusions of having subtext, The Magicians isn’t half that bad and bears more than a few similarities to Ursula Le Guin’s far superior to A Wizard of Earthsea that help to lift it. Unlike Potter, the story is at its worst at Brakebills, when it’s dealing with Quentin’s fellow pupils – they may all be graduate students but they still act like they’re in High School, and the show even gives us a 10 Things I Hate About You style introduction to all the campus’s various social groupsThey’re all completely insufferable and Quentin’s not that much better, being as full of himself ‘pre incident’ (you’ll know what I mean when I watch it) as Le Guin’s Ged was before that night on Roke Knoll. 

But when it’s dealing with both the real world and the darkest aspects of the magical world it’s conjuring, the show actually soars and the final few minutes of the first episode are genuinely disturbing and adult. It also clever enough to know its own heritage, with a ‘book within the book’ that’s clearly a Narnia knock-off, but like The Neverending Story, one that blurs into the ‘real world’ of the story.

If The Magicians can avoid its most Harry Potter-esque and its more ‘adult’ aspects in favour of its genuinely adult qualities, it could be a really good show. But I have a suspicion that it’s much more in love with its mean girls, cliques, nerds and sexy time party!! thoughts than with telling a seriously interesting story. 

  • benjitek

    It's like SyFy and CW had a baby: The Magicians — it's very ugly 🙂

  • Andy Butcher

    I actually enjoyed this quite a lot more than I expected to. Although I suspect that's probably because I haven't read the books and my expectations of Syfy are still so low (and will probably remain so for as long as they call themselves 'Syfy'.)

    Agree with benjitek that it did feel a little like a CW show, but then that's the exact demographic that Syfy needs to gain some ground with, so if anything I kinda felt like it was a smart move (assuming that it was actually a deliberate move, that is).

  • bob

    I read “The Magicians” and thought it rather bad… though somewhat interesting in the sense that all the characters bar one were absolutely hateful. I just wanted to see them suffer. Which they did but not really enough…

  • With the swearing, gore, etc, it felt a bit more like they were aiming for USA Network, and I think that you get a sense of that in the scenes that aren't set in the school. But the fact it feels more like a CW series shows you how much those school scenes bring it down.

  • This review is such a relief to read. I didn't know anyone who watched the show so I was wondering if I was being unnecessarily hard on it. I agreed with you completely!

  • Thanks for dropping by and I'm glad the review chimed with you. It's an odd show – some v good things in terms of individual moments and scenes, but filled with completely unlikable characters from top to bottom and no idea what tone it should have.

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