The most annoying part of watching Syfy’s The Magicians is the constant swearing — or, rather, the constant muted use of “fuck,” particularly in any scene involving the teleporting telepath Penny (Arjun Gupta). Though cable isn’t governed by FCC rules, that remains the One Word You Usually Can’t Say On Basic Cable(*), mainly to avoid agitating sponsors. So Penny or one of the show’s other twentysomething spellcasters will be cursing up a storm, and then the audio will start dropping whenever an F-sound is made(**). It’s a huge distraction.
(*) There are exceptions, notably FX, which quietly began letting Louieuse “fuck” a few years ago, then let other shows slowly follow suit.
(**) The streaming and On Demand versions of episodes run with the full audio, which is the same approach Mr. Robotand some other basic cable shows take. It’s yet another way (see also Mad Men‘s randomly-inserted commercial breaks) in which shows are being made less with the original air version in mind than with the one that will live for years on Netflix, et al.
And yet… those muted “fuck”s serve as an accidentally brilliant thesis statement for The Magicians, which is even better and more confident in its second season. (It premieres tomorrow night at 9; I’ve seen the first seven episodes.) The barrage of half-silent F-bombs has the feel of kids trying on grown-up habits — or basic cable shows putting on premium cable or streaming airs — without understanding that these superficial things only expose how not quite adult they really are.
Which is what The Magicians is all about.
Adapted by Sera Gamble and John McNamara from the trilogy of fantasy novels by Lev Grossman about grad students at school for magic Brakebills, who discover a Narnia-esque fantasy world called Fillory, The Magicians could content itself with being the most surface and commercial version of the idea: a little bit Harry Potter, a little bit The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and a whole lot of sex. And all of that is certainly there, particularly in any material involving Eliot (Hale Appleman), the sexually fluid life of the party who has to become the High King of Fillory — which comes with a lifetime of magically-enforced monogamy to a woman. (In an upcoming episode, Elliot compares his interest in the opposite sex to his feelings about Thai food: interesting, but not what he wants as the only thing he can ever eat.)
But the writer to whom the series owes its biggest spiritual debt isn’t J.K. Rowling or C.S. Lewis, or even Grossman, but Joss Whedon. Just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer used its monsters as metaphors for teen rites of passage, The Magicians uses its spells and demons as commentary on the difficult transition from the carefree days of your late teens and early 20s into full-fledged adulthood, with all the responsibilities that come with.
So when classmates Eliot, Quentin (Jason Ralph), Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and Margo (Summer Bishil) are made kings and queens of Fillory, it’s a thrill — particularly for Quentin, the nerd who memorized all the books about Fillory (which he believed to be fiction) growing up — but it’s also… a job, and one they’re not all ready to handle. Eliot at one point seeks the advice of Brakebills dean Henry Fogg (Rick Worthy, his every line reading dripping with wry sarcasm and frustration at having to shape such easily distracted young minds), who suggests he treat Fillory like a graduate thesis so it doesn’t become too overwhelming. And in a parallel storyline, Quentin’s best friend Julia (Stella Maeve) struggles with the physical and emotional trauma of a sexual assault (both real and magical) by a trickster god she and some friends were foolish enough to summon last season because they didn’t have the benefit of a structured and safe Brakebills education. Every story has some kind of emotional grounding or parallel to a world we recognize — even one involving what happens after the centaur god of Fillory goes to the bathroom in a place where he shouldn’t — that gives great emotional weight to material that sounds ridiculous on paper.
Season 2 makes the adulthood metaphor even more explicit. Though characters still move in and out of Brakebills as the story demands it, they’re all much more on their own, without the supervision of Fogg or the teachers, whether in Fillory or the “real” world. One character even grows so disillusioned with magic that they take a straight office job for a while, working alongside a fellow Brakebills alum who can’t believe they were taught how to use such incredible, uncontrollable power when they were barely more than kids.
Like its characters — and like almost any new show, but particularly a high-concept one like this — The Magicians had a lot to learn when it arrived. Gamble, McNamara, and the rest of the creative team struggled at times at balancing tales of day-to-day life at Brakebills with an arc about Fillory, and the Beast (Charles Mesure) who ruled it, not to mention Julia’s attempts to learn magic on her own. There would be flashes of inspiration — a riff on the old trope where the hero is institutionalized and told his previous adventures weren’t real, only Quentin’s salvation came from him performing Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” during group therapy — and other periods where the show was still learning how to distinguish itself and its characters. Dudley in particular seemed miscast as the brilliant, socially clumsy Alice, who was central to a lot of the Fillory/Beast material, and it was hard not to wish for the show to spend more time on colorful but less plot-dependent characters like Eliot and Margo. And rather than wrap up the storylines from the first Grossman book at the end of season one, the year ended on a cliffhanger that gives the first few episodes of season two the feel of being an epilogue rather than the start of a new story.
But The Magicians overall has come into its own far faster than its young witches and wizards. There’s even more of a sense of playfulness to the material, including a delightful bank heist episode that puts a magical (and, as usual, sexual) twist on the old saw about copying fingerprints in order to access a high-level vault, plus an even greater willingness to wink at all the pop culture that informed both the books and the TV show. (Margo at one point laments that they’re “stuck in some epic fantasy that likes to behead its heroes halfway through season one. If we even are heroes. We might be comic relief.” And Dirty Dancing turns out to be hugely important to the plot of the season premiere.)
There’s greater prominence (and emotional complexity) for Eliot, the breakout character of that first year, even if this is still primarily Quentin’s story. (It’s a less flashy role, but Ralph continues to play the role with enough vulnerability to keep this from feeling like an extended orgy with occasional pauses for levitation, even as he and the writers take pleasure in mocking Quentin’s nerdier affectations.) There are other tweaks, like the way that access to greater power begins to corrupt Alice, which works wonders for Dudley in the same way that getting to play an evil version of Angel in Buffy season two once unlocked the previously-hidden talents of David Boreanaz. And Julia’s story more directly and frequently connects with everyone else’s, rather than her and Kady (Jade Tailor) being embedded in a show-within-the-show.
Buffy, for all of its own genius, was one of many high school dramas to stumble when it came time for the kids to grow up a bit and go to college. But there’s plenty of fertile territory in that next phase of life, and in what comes immediately after. We’ve seen that transition tackled in lots of interesting ways of late, from the meta comedy of Community to the artisanally-crafted awkwardness of Girls to the smart, increasingly addictive brew of genre and character drama that The Magicians has mixed together.
So, yeah, all of Penny’s muted “fuck”s” feel like he’s trying too hard, and maybe in time he’ll learn to relax a little with that. But if the show he’s on hasn’t learned to let go of that affectation yet, it’s been a remarkably quick study at everything else.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org