Syfy’s latest original series, The Magicians, is the latest version of the popular “pretty young people with special powers” trope that has inundated the cultural zeitgeist. Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), the latest Chosen One, is a moody philosophy student who always feels like the smartest guy in the room. He’s that guy at the party who wants everyone to know that he is having a bad time with such frivolities and who assures you that the original Danish version of a television show is better because “the Danish just have darker souls or something.” He apparently only loves two things: his best friend and clearly unrequited love (can we please kill and bury the idea of the friend zone already?), Julia (Stella Maeve), and a fantasy book series called Fillory and Further, which is essentially The Chronicles of Narnia without the Christian metaphors. When Quentin thinks that he is going to a graduate interview for Yale, he is instead thrust into the hidden world of Brakebills University, a college for the magically inclined. Think of it as Hogwarts except that the students are more sexually active and know what math is.
There is a reason that Chosen One narratives are popular. People are obviously drawn to the idea that they might be special and that the emptiness they feel can be cured by a simple magic trick. However, in order to succeed, these stories have to bring something new to the table. It’s all the more unfortunate that The Magicians doesn’t, given that its source material, a trilogy of novels by Lev Grossman, earned acclaim in part by referencing and subverting familiar elements of fantasy fiction. While it’s hard to judge a show by its pilot, The Magicians simply isn’t bringing us anything new. Quentin is Harry Potter by way of the socially inept, but brilliant Sherlock Holmes without the appeal of either, and all of the side characters fall into familiar roles, as well. Quentin’s roommate Penny (Arjun Gupta) is artistic yet tortured by his abilities, Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) is studious and uptight, and Eliot (Hale Appleman) and Margo (Summer Bishil) are the worldly older students who show Quentin the ropes. There is also a typically stern Dean (Rick Worthy) and a shadowy and mysterious villain to round out the cast.
The only character who really feels like something new is Julia. She, too, was summoned to Brakebills like Quentin, except that she didn’t pass her entrance exam. Instead of letting them wipe her memory of the entire ordeal, she forces herself to remember, setting her down a dangerous path of obsession and darker means to magical enlightenment. Honestly, the show would be better to focus on her instead of the bland Quentin. No one seems to have to struggle for their success on The Magicians, so the idea of an overachiever being told no and struggling to handle that rejection is a more relatable and appealing storyline.
This is not to say that the show is without merit. It is more stylish than many of its predecessors, seamlessly blending the modern New York landscape with the magical elements. The effects look better than expected from a Syfy show, and the shocking murder at the end of the episode does give the show a much-needed shot in the arm. While Quentin himself may be vanilla through and through, the question of whether or not the Fillory from his favorite books is real or not is an interesting one. Is the magical world bleeding over into the real one solely in his head, or is the fabric of reality really starting to shred? (Something tells me it’s the latter.) Still, the show will have to work hard to keep from becoming a more adult yet lightweight Narnia.
The Magicians has to be more than a “grown up” version of the stories that we’ve all read if it wants to find its feet. It seems a shame to write it off already, so hopefully the series will progress into something a little shaggier and less practiced as the season progresses. Whether or not people should stick around long enough for it to find a unique voice is a completely different matter. It’s one thing to pay homage to what’s come before; another to try stealing the legs from under them.