Last week’s episode of The Magicians climaxed with most of the Syfy drama’s main characters teaming up to sing “Under Pressure” as a way to escape perilous circumstances while scattered across multiple dimensions (including the Underworld).
It worked, not only for the characters, but for The Magicians itself, with the musical number the latest high point in a third season that’s been full of them. (There are a handful of new episodes left, including tonight’s.) Like a lot of what the series — about a group of twentysomethings who met at a grad school for magic, and who at the moment are operating in a universe where magic has largely ceased to exist (think Harry Potter, but pansexual and profane) — does, it makes little logical sense, but it feels emotionally true, and that’s what matters.
The Magicians is part of the current boom in ultra-serialized, wildly over-plotted TV dramas, where the story keeps on churning and twisting. These shows pile one complication onto the next onto the next in the hopes that viewers will keep coming back (or, in the case of the streaming dramas that have now influenced so many non-streaming shows like this, let the episodes just keep playing), even as the story becomes so contorted it can be hard to make sense of it if you pause for even a moment to think.
A lot of the time, this narrative approach can be exhausting. But The Magicians has continued to defy that issue, even though I would not have a prayer of properly explaining all of this season’s arcs and alliances, despite deriving great pleasure from the show.
How has it done this? Two reasons, both of them neatly captured by that Bowie/Queen number, and by last week’s musical episode in general:
1. It prioritizes character and emotion over plot.
This seems counter-intuitive, since as I’ve said, Magicians is at least as overstuffed with twists and turns and story arcs as something like Ozark. But The Magicians uses that churn to both service its larger themes about entering adulthood and trying to make sense of a world you didn’t make, and to allow us to better understand what makes each regular tick.
One of this year’s arcs, for instances, involves Arjun Gupta’s Penny dying, but sticking around the narrative for various magical reasons too labyrinthine to get into here. I’ve long since lost track of exactly how he might return to life, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s really a story that’s literalizing the remove at which Penny has always held himself from the rest of the group. He’s never really felt like friends with most of them, and now he has to jump through hoops just so they can see and hear him, which feels at least as wearing to him as the whole being dead thing. Julia (Stella Maeve) and Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) keep changing allegiances at what seems like random, but all those choices are very clearly driven by the PTSD each of them are still coping with after all the horrors visited on them in seasons past. Eliot (Hale Appleman) and Margo (Summer Bishil) have been put through a wringer themselves as they’ve lost their positions as king and queen of a magical realm, and even when I lose track of what scheme they’re running next against their various enemies, it doesn’t matter, because the overall idea of the two shallowest members of the group growing up and taking on the biggest responsibility is so potent.
This, ultimately, is much more important than What Happens Next. Eventually, you run out of ways to surprise the audience, or to create a challenge for the heroes that doesn’t feel like a rehash of what’s come before. But if you make the characters compelling in and of themselves, and make sure that what they do in the plot is always reflective of who they are, you can get away with a lot of nonsensical shenanigans.
2. It manages to do distinctive episodes even within this tangle of story threads.
The art of crafting memorable individual drama episodes is unfortunately falling out of fashion as everyone tries to copy Netflix’s model, and a fair amount of Magicians outings fit that mold of “here’s another hour of plot,” though they’re more effective than many comparable shows for the reasons outlined above. But — perhaps because it’s made to first air weekly on cable — showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara make an effort to do at least a few episodes every year that stand alone as a viewing experience, even as they move the stories forward.
This season’s most exciting episodes were all variations on familiar sci-fi and fantasy and even pulp tropes, but incredibly well-executed examples of it. In “A Life in the Day,” Quentin (Jason Ralph) and Elliot spend decades together on a small patch of lawn trying to solve an unsolvable puzzle for their quest, eventually returning to their youthful selves but with memories of all they went through together. “Six Short Stories About Magic” is a caper adventure told out of order, from many different points of view, one long stretch played in silence with signing and subtitles as we finally get backstory on Marlee Matlin’s Harriet. And last week’s “All That Josh” isn’t a full-on musical episode in the way that Buffy‘s famous “Once More, With Feeling” was, but at several crucial moments our heroes have to literally sing for their lives, even before we get to “Under Pressure.” Each of those, plus some others like “Be the Penny” (about the immediate aftermath of Penny’s death and his attempts to communicate with the living) create a fully satisfying, often thrilling, entertainment experience, even as they’re nudging various subplots along, and they’re the kind of thing so many more serialized shows should be attempting, even if they can’t pull them off this well.
There are definitely times when keeping up with the sheer tonnage of Magicians plot can seem like just as much of a chore as it is on some other current series. But then I’ll get an episode like “A Life in the Day,” or even a smaller moment between star-crossed lovers Kady (Jade Tailor) and Penny, and it ceases to feel like work and becomes the thing it is: a pleasure.