“The Magicians” is offbeat in a lazy sort of way. Syfy’s latest show looks at magicians’ struggles in our own world. This is no Harry Potter, either…not even the last few volumes. “The Magicians” plays with dark premises and adult situations. Wrapped in the magic and coed wuv, however, is a ruthless examination that tackles popular notions of the ivory tower.
We start with Quentin, played by Jason Ralph. He’s despondent about the real world. He’s graduate student aged. He’s latching onto the setting of his favorite book, the fictional Fillory and Further. He also believes in magic. Best friend Julia, played by Stella Maeve, has no such problems. She’s also concerned about her best friend’s well being.
One thing leads to another. Quentin arrives at his Yale alumni interview only to find his interviewer dead. In the office is also an unheard sixth volume of Fillory and Further. Quentin has a conniption fit, Julia has none of it. Then a manuscript page floats away and Quintin chases after. He suddenly appears at Breakbills University, a school of magic in upstate New York.
He and a slew of other prospective students, most bewildered as he is, then take the entrance examination. Surprisingly, Julia is among them. Quentin passes. Julia doesn’t. From here two narratives branch. Through Quentin, we see how the magic elite learn and play. With Julia, we learn how magicians outside Breakbills struggle to uncover knowledge. Such knowledge, of course, is easily accessible at Breakbills.
The dichotomy is an interesting one. Even the magic school’s name, Breakbills, has a sardonic edge. here’s two castes: those who can access information and those who cannot. Julia struggles to perform basic spells and then joins several cabals of hedge magicians. Each compensates for their status in different ways. Some turn to esoteric, unproven spells…or worship. Others work to infiltrate Breakbills.
Quentin, meanwhile, is having a ball at his school. There, he meets a motley assortment of characters. Most prominent are Penny, a psychic badboy, as well the effeminate Eliot and his platonic companion Margo. Quentin’s love interest Alice is also someone to admire…and stare at. The group undergoes all sorts of tests, condescension, and potential danger. Such efforts are under the auspices of their instructors, however. The same is not true for Julia.
The plot snakes along as the series progresses. Each episode we learn a bit more about the characters and their motivations. Unlike similar dramas, such details drive the story rather than burden it. “The Magicians” is also significantly darker. The story behind Fillory, and its author Christopher Plover, is predictable as it is bile-inducing. Some people die while others cry. Those who survive typically walk away without a second glance.
Even with all the commotion, however, the “Magicians” still has a sense of humor. Most episodes feature riffs against C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and similar titles. Casual viewers are also welcome. There’s enough flash to spellbind, that’s without doubt. Most cynics will struggle to restrain smirks, though. “The Magicians” is still a vicarious romp.
Quite the irony. “The Magicians” critiques wish fulfillment, yet is propelled by it. These characters are the elite of the elite. They perform the inexplicable. For many, they are the equivalent of physicists turned investment bankers. “The Magicians” is entertaining but unconcerned with social awareness. Instead, the Syfy original focuses on a Lewis Carroll-esq nightmare run amok and how people behave around him. Expect Kevin Spacey to play the antagonist if “The Magicians” ever hits the silver screen.