Meet Quentin Coldwater. Played by Jason Ralph, Quentin is your typical highly-medicated 20-something who can’t quite get a hold of his emotions in the wasteland that is life after college. Quentin spends his days moping around his Brooklyn loft — of course — with roommate Julia (Stella Maeve) and reading a children’s book series called Fillory and Further. Like many, he’s hoping the correct path will magically reveal itself. Such is the basic premise of Syfy’s excellent new series The Magicians, adapted from author Lev Grossman’s popular book series.
If you recognize Quentin’s backstory, it’s because it’s the textbook starting point of the so-called “monomyth,” a term developed by author Joseph Campbell. It’s the commonplace narrative template of every hero’s journey in which a normal character goes on a fantastic adventure and is fundamentally changed in the process. But unlike other similar stories — your Luke Skywalkers, your Frodos — The Magicians relies on Quentin’s inability to accept the real world in order to set him up on his life-changing journey.
“The fear of not belonging anywhere is getting overwhelming,” Quentin says early on in the first episode. He is constantly told he should start thinking about growing up and getting serious and thusly attempts to go down the normal path by applying to graduate school and, more importantly, by getting rid of his cherished Fillory books.
“Life is starting for real,” Julia tells him before he heads to his graduate alumni interview. As he walks through the door, only to find the interviewer dead and a missing sixth Fillory book bequeathed to him, Quentin quickly realizes that real life won’t exactly start like Julia said it would.
Quentin and Julia are soon both caught up in an entrance exam to a mysterious university called Brakebills where magic spells are a reality and the kind of things that Quentin dreamed of as a child are once again of import. For Quentin, “real life” will clearly be a life of magic.
But just as you come to expect a typical boy-and-girl magical adventure, The Magicians throws its first curveball by putting Quentin and Julia on divergent — if not outright opposite — journeys. As Quentin heads forward into this magical unknown where his juvenile personality is in fact an asset, the more rational Julia is ostensibly forced back into the real world, as she is rejected from Brakebills.
The girl who previously fought so hard to grow up is now aching to get back into the world that she was so keen to write off as pure fantasy. This brings her to accept a semi-invitation from another rival group of magicians in order to pursue her own magical aspirations. This likely won’t end well, but it certainly provides an interesting tension for our two leads, deepening their relationship with the looming prospect of things turning very sour, very quickly. The first two episodes position Quentin as the more passive audience surrogate and Julia as the more dynamic character, but there is no doubt that protagonist Quentin will inevitably rise to the occasion, as the Quentins of the world are always meant to.
“Stop talking, you child,” one of the Fillory characters tells Quentin during a dream sequence, as others keep telling him to “Stay on the garden path.” Whether Quentin strays from the path like Julia already has remains to be seen. It may even be a worthy twist down the line. For now, however, The Magicians and its lead character both make the argument that it is OK to embrace an adolescent sense of wonder — something that is sorely missing from a lot of tentpole television shows featuring magic these days.
The Magicians airs every Monday at 9 p.m., EST on Syfy.