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.