I wasn’t sure about The Magicians, the Syfy fantasy series based on Lev Grossman’s trilogy. As you know, I am dubious of Syfy’s quality, even when they don’t actually produce the show (which they usually do not). The quality of Syfy movies has tainted their episodic productions in my eyes – even though they are now, brilliantly, using the absolute terribleness of their movies as a marketing tool! I applaud their insight.
I also wasn’t a huge fan of the first book. Entitled, magical twenty-somethings in New York City aren’t my demo, and I didn’t know what the show was going to make of that.
I watched the first episode and I liked it. I thought they were onto something. By Episode Three or so, however, it had fallen into a slump, and much like the middle of the first book, I was stuck with characters I disliked while they did boring things. I checked out for a while.
Fortunately for me, the show picked up again around Episode Six, when apparently it woke up and decided that while it owed its life to Grossman’s books, hey, wait a minute, it was episodic television! It could go off in some different directions! Once that happened, for the most part, the story settled in and got good. Then it got riveting.
Television shows employ a different style of story-telling than novels do; like anything, it means they can do some things better, and some things not as well. The Magicians series has not done justice to Alice’s story. On the plus side, it managed to make the character of Penny accessible in a way he never was in the book. The book was written in close third person from Quentin’s POV, and Quentin hated Penny. Therefore, we only saw Penny as someone who was hated. The TV show frees us from that. The writing is good, but I have to say 90% of what makes Penny engaging is the performance of Arjun Gupta.
Choosing to run the story of Julia, who did not get into the prestigious magic school Brakebills, in parallel with the story of sad sack Quentin, who did, was a stroke of brilliance, but unfortunately it was Julia’s story that dragged for a while. Her sparring with “hedge witch” Marina got old… but Julia’s anger at Quentin and the spell she flings at him led to one of my favorite scenes in the entire season; the Taylor Swift musical number in the asylum. That was simply awesome.
One thing Grossman wanted to do, in his trilogy, was question and explore the concept of the lone hero, the “chosen one,” and the dangers inherent in that motif. The show does that pretty well, although the need for a suspenseful, dramatic story arc squashes that discussion a bit until we get to the finale. In the show, the character of Julia rather than Quentin seems like the toxic hero whose questing, heroic acts rebound in terrible ways. Julia had that experience in the books too, but it played out differently than it did here.
The performers go a long way to making this show; Olivia Taylor Dudley captures brittle, brilliant lone-wolf Alice perfectly. Jason Ralph makes the unlikable Quentin plausible and almost bearable. I think Hale Appleton, as Eliot, steals the show for me, though. He takes a very standardized if not stereotypical character, the Languid Witty Gay Guy, and infuses him with real humor, loyalty and loss. And in the last quarter of the season, when Eliot begins to melt down, Appleton makes me believe every second of it.
(It’s a measure of the quality of both the writing and the performance that I actually shouted at the TV, “Why aren’t you helping Eliot? Can’t you see what’s happening?” while I was watching. That’s engagement.)
Stella Maeve, who plays Julia, has a harder time of it in many ways, but her occasional “you have got to be kidding me” facial expression often saves the day.
Secondary characters don’t fare quite as well, and this is a fault of storytelling, not the performers. When I can tell whether Marina is going to be vengeful bitch or a helpful ally simply by the thickness of her eyeliner, Houston, we have a problem.
I’m not sure they completely pulled off the one-hour-and-six-minute season finale, for a couple of reasons (the fixation with sperm is one), but they created real suspense that came directly from the motivations and actions of the characters. I’m still not all in – the stumbles along the way make me worry that this show could still turn into a slavering, demonic hybrid of Friends and Supernatural – but I am cautiously awaiting Season Two to see how it turns out. And I’m hopeful.
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