The Magicians should have been too good for Syfy. This was one of the hottest properties in fantasy literature, and prior to the network’s re-commitment to making actually great genre television again, this should have been too important and too classy for the network of Sharknado. And yet, as the pilot (just released on Syfy’s website) shows, this is a show that could be a great adaptation of its source material, and possibly a fine show on its own.
What makes The Magicians such a big deal? What Game of Thrones was to Lord of the Rings — a gritty, raunchy, violent, adult take on heroic fantasy — The Magicians is to the coming-of-age young adult fantasy of Harry Potter or Narnia. Lev Grossman’s novel takes the idea of a real-world young person, Quentin Coldwater, who learns they have powers and sends him both to magical university (Brakebills) and a magical world (Fillory).
But it’s not simply Harry Potter with more sex and violence. Grossman manages to interweave Potter and Narnia as well as literary fiction, Lord of the Rings, and even a Dungeons & Dragons-like climax together. And instead of falling apart as pure pastiche, it has an emotional core that makes it both a clever set of references and a conventionally forward-moving story. The next two books in the trilogy don’t quite hit the same highs, but they continue quite satisfactorily.
So a television adaptation of The Magicians needs to be impressive from the start. It needs the writers, directors, and producers to be smart enough to adapt the wide range of influences of Grossman’s novels into a coherent whole. It needs strong enough young actors to provide an emotional core, no matter how wild or superficially cliche the story gets (and, in the case of Quentin, making the occasionally arrogant, emotionally distant, too-smart young man remain sympathetic despite his mistakes). It needs the budget to portray three distinct settings: the real world of New York City, the magical university of Brakebills, and the full-on fantasy world of Fillory. And it’s also gotta have the courage to show the sex and violence and horror of its story.
Three years ago, The Magicians could only exist on four networks: HBO, Showtime, AMC, or FX. But now, in the world of Peak TV? If the Lifetime channel can have one of the best shows of the year, then why not Syfy?
The Magicians doesn’t officially premiere until January 25th with a two-hour special, but it tagged its premiere episode onto the finale of Childhood’s End and has the first episode streaming. The verdict? Much like this fantasy show’s science fiction counterpart, The Expanse, it’s a qualified success.
The good: Syfy really has invested in The Magicians. The sets are all good-looking, although Brakebills is surprisingly modern-looking. We only catch brief glimpses of Fillory, but it looks properly fairy tale-ish, and the magic itself — while clearly not blockbuster movie levels of CGI quality — doesn’t appear to be scared of showing whatever needs to be shown.
The actors are another strong point. Genre specialists like Rick Worthy (Battlestar Galactica) and Esmé Bianco (Game of Thrones) give it an instant dose of credibility. But the real question is the young adults, and all of them work well — Jason Ralph as Quentin manages the right amount of vulnerability to balance out his more frustrating traits. The initial standout is Hale Appleman as the perpetually amused/disdainful Eliot — a common enough archetype, sure, but Eliot’s entertaining familiarity is essential both for readers and viewers to engage with Brakebills initially.
Lack of engagement with Brakebills University is arguably the biggest problem with the pilot. Perhaps the best part of that first novel is the mixture of the fantastic with the mundane, the idea that Quentin and the rest were becoming real magicians in a relatively conventional educational setting as dread of impending tragedy mounts. There’s also that magic is something that has to be practiced and studied like a dance routine or set of equations — that’s present in the pilot, as one of its best moments occurs toward the end when a powerful magician shows up, prancing and tutting his way through a classroom, but it’s not explicitly stated, because the academic story is so underplayed. And it’s almost totally missing small-scale, dramatically important bits like Quentin searching for a major, or learning which professors he can befriend and trust.
This leads to the biggest question for The Magicians moving forward: will this story be structured well for television? That Syfy has given it a baseline of technical slickness is a huge step forward both for the series and for the network, but the story has to be told well.
Most importantly, the creators have made the ambitious but understandable choice of pairing Quentin’s conventional magical training story with his best friend Julia’s black market training, when the former was the subject of the first novel, and the latter, half of the second novel. This means that this first season of the show is probably attempting to depict a novel and a half in just 10 episodes. Will significant amounts be cut to the point of superficiality or confusion? Will the season-long structure be too dense for the show’s to breathe? And if not — it’ll be a helluva trick if Syfy pulls it off.