First Impressions of Syfy’s “The Magicians”

Amid all the teen shows out there that depict the highs and lows of life in high school – or just life as a teenager – I really wish there were more about college.

I guess it’s because I drifted through high school a little like a zombie and have few exciting memories of that time. Plus, teenage drama can become melodrama very quickly, and I kinda just want to put away that old side of myself. Even hearing about teenage problems in a TV show makes me want to put on my old lady glasses and tell them to grow up already. (I know, I’m mean to TV characters.)

On the other hand, I loved college. That’s where I gained confidence for the first time and had so many adventures. Somewhere I have over 10,000 photos stored just from my three years at college. So many awesome memories and real friendships there.

But for some reason, most TV shows seem to jump from high school to being a socializing 20-something to making a family work. What about college?

That’s why I was excited to hear about The Magicians this week, a new TV show based on books by Lev Grossman that depict a magic university. It’s a college show, and it just happens to be fantasy. I was intrigued. Some call The Magicians Harry Potter for adults. Maybe fans of the book understand it’s very different, but based on watching the first episode of the TV series, I can say that’s an apt description. And I love it.

The Magician features two protagonists who, based on the fact they’re ready to start grad school, must be about 22 years old.

One is Quentin Coldwater, an outcast type who would rather read in his room during a college party than hit on the girl in the super-short shorts. He self-medicates with fantasy and pills for depression.

5022340-magiciansThe other main character is his best friend Julia Wicker, who basically tells Quentin it’s time to throw away the comic books, hit on some girls, and grow up. I wish she had a little more characterization early on… but things definitely get interesting fast.

At some point, Quentin and Julia are both pulled, separately, from the real world into another realm, to a university called Brakebills. Here, they take an entrance exam. The questions on the exam’s pages keep changing. There’s not a lot of insight into what the exam entails or how to solve the problems it poses, but in the end, we learn that Quentin passed this magical exam while Julia failed.

Julia is supposed to have her mind wiped so she won’t remember she even took the exam. She won’t know Brakebills (or the magic it teaches) exists. But just before this happens, she scars her arm so she’ll remember the event when she looks at it. And when she wakes up back in the real world of New York City next to her boyfriend, she spots the scar and boom, she remembers.

Meanwhile, Quentin adjusts to life on the inside. First, he gets a grand tour of the grounds and the other students – the psychics people think are weird, the hippies, a nerdy teacher’s pet type named Alice, and third year students of whom fewer than a handful remain out of 20. (What happened to the others? Mystery!)

When Quentin returns to the real world and visits Julia for her birthday party, he sees how upset Julia is that she didn’t make it into Brakebills. Now that she knows such a place exists, she doesn’t want to live in a “normal” world anymore. Quentin tries to tell her she must not have the aptitude for magic and that maybe, being the star she is, she just doesn’t want to fail at something. But Julia says it’s more than that – she believes magic is her calling, the Brakebills is wrong about her.

Later that evening, Julia is attacked by a mysterious man. With magic, he rips off her shirt and uses it to tie her hands together. It looks like the set-up for a rape, but he is in fact trying to get a rise out of Julia, to inspire her to use magic.

And she does. Her fear and anger cause her to free herself and spark magic out of her hands like streams of lightning. Although the episode doesn’t go into a lot more than that, it sounds like this man can teach Julia magic outside of Brakebills – maybe an illegal magic, as if she’s joining the dark side.

magicians pilotIn some ways, it feels like the episode breezes too quickly through events. I wanted to know more about the book Quentin is reading early on at the college party. And how he and Julia were already learning about magic. When Quentin arrives at Brakebills, he’s instantly accepted by a clique, who we know very little about. Other students at the school are also introduced, such as Alice, but they’re barely shadowed into people before they’re all sitting together in front of a mirror trying to talk to the dead. I just wish there was a little more groundwork on who these people are, and details on how magic works in this world.

The best part of the episode is the very end, when Quentin’s classroom is hacked by a man who steps out of a mirror. Everyone else in the room is frozen in place, only able to move their eyes to see what’s happening. The man – who will become the story’s main villain, I assume – is dressed in a suit, has an English accent when he speaks, writes smiley faces as his calling crad, and has his face obscured by a flurry of moths. It is seriously an awesome thing to see.

the-magicians-episode-101-screenshot-01_1200.0.0When the school’s headmaster arrives on the scene, the villain rips his eyes out of his head. The rest of the class can’t do anything about it, frozen as they are. It’s pretty horrifying. Naturally, the villain walks over to Quentin and calls him out by name, as if Quentin is some sort of chosen one he’s been waiting for. I wonder what that’s all about…

Overall, I am really impressed by the show. I love the college setting, I’m curious to see what happens with Julia learning magic as an outsider, and the villain is incredible so far. I also like Quentin’s character: he’s a great blend of depressed loner, bumbling nerd, and eager student of magic who’s kind of in awe of everything that’s happening to him. It’s great to be ushered through the fantastical story by a character like him.

What I would like to know more about is the magic. In the second part of his entrance exam, Quentin is yelled at until he performs magic he didn’t even know he could perform – he flips a deck of cards into the air so they float around him, then sets them on a table in the shape of a castle before passing out in shock at what he’s able to do. That’s the most magic we see in the show, I’d say. It’s a pretty scene. I just want to see more and understand how it all works!

Syfy’s other big show right now is The Expanse, which I wrote about here. So far, I’m liking The Magicians a lot more.

And speaking of how much I love college, one of the opening scenes of the show blasts MGMT’s “Time to Pretend,” which is the song of my college years. I got so excited I was dancing in my seat on the couch. Seems like this show is made just for people like me. =)


5 thoughts on “First Impressions of Syfy’s “The Magicians””

  1. I was pleasantly surprised by the books and hope the show does the same. I know the title implies you will be discussing the show but for me at least I was unsure if you would include info from the show or just speak to your impressions of it. One tiny piece of feedback is to put a spoiler alert at the top of this type of article just in case someone has not seen the episode/read the books so they know you will be referencing events from the episode.

    1. Interesting, I am tempted to read the books now, especially since the show feels very fast-paced and I’d like to get to know the characters and worldbuilding in more detail!

      Thanks, I do sometimes put spoiler warnings at the top of posts if I’m going to talk about the ending of a game or movie, etc. I’ll start putting them up more often though! :)

      1. It also sounds like the books are taking a different angle with Julie then the books did. You are correct with the books fleshing out the characters and world more than the show so I recommend checking them out!

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