I haven’t read the best-selling novels by Lev Grossman on which the new Syfy series The Magicians is based, but having seen the two episodes airing Monday night, I can tell that there’s a lot of rich storytelling to unfold here.
The premiere starts by introducing us to Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) and his best friend Julia (Stella Maeve), who are diverted from their future as probable Ivy League college students to instead take an entrance exam for Brakebills University, a school of magic. Within this supernatural context, the show plays the emotions and motivations realistically.
“I can’t just go to Yale [now that] I know this place exists,” Julia says; it’s a funny yet emotionally true line. Similarly, Quentin, a long-haired mope, feels himself an outsider who’s only connected with a series of fantasy novels he’s been re-reading since childhood. Brakebills would seem to be the way to act on all the desires he’s kept bottled up inside himself. Where better to do that than at a school filled not only with young magic disciples, but in a leafy upstate-New York setting populated by attractive young people, some of whom engaging in magical levitating sex?
The two are separated — Quentin makes it into Brakebills; Julia flunks the so-called “exam of your magical aptitude” — which sets them on separate but I assume eventually converging storylines, both filled with magic and danger.
The opening hour does a good job of setting up the competitive atmosphere of Brakebills, within which there are different schools of disciplines, such as Psychic Magic, Physical Magic, Illusions, and Healing. It also sets up a frightening foe referred to as The Beast. (“Find the Beast! Kill him!” says one professor speaking in starkly non-academic terms.)
Grossman’s novels have been brought to television by writer-producers John McNamara (Aquarius) and Sera Gamble (Supernatural), both canny storytellers themselves. Gamble and McNamara give themselves over to the material, recognizing that their job is primarily, initially, to create the textured world Grossman has invented.
They succeed, even if some of the performances don’t quite do the effort justice. I found Ralph’s Quentin to be excessively morose and jittery — irritating qualities in what I assume is going to be our primary protagonist. But it seems as though the show is aware of his annoying tendencies — another character correctly pegs him a “sad sack” — so maybe Quentin just reminds me of too many ostentatiously moody, arty types from my own college days. Many of the other roles are well-acted, especially Olivia Taylor Dudley’s Alice, whose sharp magical powers are held somewhat in check by what initially seems like shyness but is soon revealed as scarcely disguised frustration and anger at not being recognized — by her apparently quite neglectful parents, and the rest of the students — as a powerful magician-in-the-making.
Overall, this seems as though it will be one of Syfy’s most engaging new series as the channel continues to get back into the hardcore sci-fi and fantasy genres.
The Magicians airs Monday night at 9 p.m. on Syfy.