SyFy, in addition to its awesome science fiction world building with shows like Killjoys, Dark Matter and most recently, the Expanse, has tried its hand at fantasy by adapting the book series The Magicians by Lev Grossman into a TV show. And though it is only 5 episodes in, I already feel like the world it is trying to build, or adapt rather, is not quite coming together. It’s ideas and plot are solid, as reviews of the source books themselves are quite positive, but the execution of the adaptation and the treatment of its themes and issues have so far been somewhat…less than magical.
The Magicians follows the experiences of young adults who are whisked away into a modern university for magicians and wizards called Brakebills (think the MIT fused with Hogwarts), mostly through the point of view of Quentin Coldwater, a misfit who takes his misfit-edness much too seriously. In fact, most of the characters are exaggerated stereotypes who have yet to be fleshed out of their first dimension. He is a loner isolated by his own misunderstanding of his power, and Brakebills is the first place he feels like he belongs. His best friend, an unrequited love interest and pouty badass, is also recruited, but fails the “entrance exam” and is returned to the normal world outside of the magical barriers that keep the school hidden, her memory wiped. However, she is able to recall the fact that magic exists and it drives her to seek out others of magical ability, who aren’t as scrupulous or noble as those in charge or Brakebills.
Brakebills itself looks like a regular school, with houses dedicated to different magical crafts. Quentin falls in the with physical kids, who are telekinetic. The leader of that house is a rather trite and uninteresting stereotype of a flamboyant party boy who seems like a pale, if obvious, imitation of Felix from Orphan Black. The school also comes with a rather arrogant and morally nebulous faculty. The dean suffers a rather serious injury, literally at the hands of an unknown, moth-swarmed assailant, within the first few episodes which sets them against a powerful and unknown adversary. Quentin has a mysterious ally in visions he gets from the main character of a book he reads about a magical land called FIllory, which we learn is one of many magical worlds that are accessible to certain magicians (including one of the supporting characters, a troubled Indian fellow named Penny). It is within the interactions of Brakebills, Fillory and the real world and the magicians in each that will drive the plot forward.
The treatment of the material, while visually stunning (SyFy tech budgets and implementation have greatly improved over the years), feels juvenile and common. Quentin’s issues with mental illness are poorly handled and the acting in the show often feels forced and comedic in situations where it shouldn’t be. The worst of it comes from the supporting cast, whose 1 dimension-ality and bland backstories and motivations are palpably thin, and even when the strongest parts (Quentin’s fumbling with his own powers, the dean’s hardline lectures) are presented, the moments are brief and lost in special effects and teen drama level acting. The source material could be a rich draw for the show, if only the script and acting could catch up to it and not be buried under special effects.
Its only 5 episodes in, and I’m an optimist, so I’ll give The Magicians a season to get its footing. But considering the powerhouses of science fiction like Killjoys, Dark Matter and the Expanse that SyFy got going really well straight out of the gate, perhaps it should stick to space and futuristic world building for the time being instead of trying to license material to make a CW version of Harry Potter.