An oversimplified description of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians goes something like this: It’s like Harry Potter, only set at a leafy upstate college rather than Hogwarts, and instead of plucky 11-year-olds learning witchcraft and wizardry, there are moody freshmen wrestling with sex, drugs, and their abundant feelings. Despite the dubious premise, Grossman’s novel succeeds due to its self-awareness: Its hero, Quentin Coldwater, is an avid reader of a fictional, Narnia-like series, and so his acceptance at a wizarding school is portrayed almost as an entry into a familiar world. Retaining that metatextual edge is crucial in adapting the series for television, but it turns out to be the very task the new show, premiering Monday on SyFy, struggles with the most.
The show, created by John McNamara and Sera Gamble, faces all the challenges you might expect from a book-to-TV adaptation. The first half of The Magicians (the first in a trilogy of novels by Grossman) is packed with world-building, fleshing out the magical Brakebills College; the fictional novels of “Fillory” that Quentin (Jason Ralph) devoured as a child; and the enchanting, secretive process by which students are admitted to the school. McNamara and Gamble have to cram all of that into a pilot episode while also setting up the series’ first major adversary, and they understandably cut plenty of corners in doing so. So the result ends up feeling like a knock-off of the genre works that inspired Grossman, lacking in the wry commentary that made the original books feel so fresh.
Without the meta, The Magicians is mostly a tale of dark, emotional teenagers acting out their problems and desires as they transition to adulthood. With magic. Still, there’s plenty that does work: The magic itself has a odd, intricate feel—the characters wiggle their fingers and arms around in bizarre, jerky motions with studied practice. The ensemble is a languid bunch of beautiful emo nightmare children, including the depressed Quentin, goody-two-shoes Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), troublemaker Penny (Arjun Gupta), and Quentin’s lush of a mentor, Eliot (Hale Appleman). In terms of setting, Brakebills is suitably bucolic, although its classroom sets are surprisingly modernistic and clean, perhaps seeking to avoid the cluttered, old-world feel of Harry Potter, Narnia, and other recognizable forebears.
But in trying to comprehensively set up the plot, McNamara and Gamble end up delivering a pretty perfunctory “special boy” narrative about Quentin—a lonely outsider in a mundane world—being discovered and tapped for greatness by this magical new school. In his writing, Grossman always tried to flip that story on its head by contrasting Quentin’s fantasies of his new magical life (informed by the Fillory books he kept referring back to) with the harsh, scary truth that a world of magic would be infinitely more dangerous and challenging to navigate than one without it. The show tries to tie in Fillory as best as it can without being completely confusing, but in the pilot episode that amounts to a couple of dream sequences that hint at wilder adventures to come.
SyFy aired a sneak preview of The Magicians’ pilot in December, perhaps aware that it’s crammed with so much exposition that it best functions as a promising set-up to what still could be a fascinating series. The episode closes on an encounter with a powerful, magical being called “The Beast,” a crucial early sequence in Grossman’s first book that lays bare the darkness of the wider world outside Brakebills. It’s the best part of the show so far because it combines visual flair with the allure of the unknown—there’s no explanation of who this person is or what his motivations are. In other words: no analogue to Harry Potter’s straightforward representations of villainy.
This is where the “adult” nature of Grossman’s books shines through and distinguishes itself, and it’s the only point at which the show felt truly remarkable. There are plenty of other vanilla attempts at risqué material, but they fall flat, especially a parallel storyline about Quentin’s real-world friend Julia (Stella Maeve) who gets rejected from Brakebills and tries to work her way into the world of magic another way. Like much of the early episodes, this is necessary set-up for the future—Julia ends up a crucial character in Grossman’s later books—but here it feels plodding and far too satisfied with being scandalous (in her initiation into the world of unauthorized magic, she’s tied to a radiator and stripped of her shirt).
McNamara is a strong, charming writer who faltered last year with Aquarius, another show that aped the strong violent and sexual content of premium TV without including much of the substance behind it. The Magicians is a better and more promising show. Perhaps once the exposition is disposed of, it’ll pick up speed (the second episode, which also airs Monday, is a little better than the first). But to succeed, the show needs to more fully explore the complex and often terrifying world it introduces, tropes and all.