I don’t know how to write about SyFy’s The Magicians.
To be more specific, I don’t know how to write about The Magicians because I don’t know where the rest of you are with the show. The second season just concluded last night, and a third will arrive sometime in 2018. However, up until this past January I hadn’t seen a single episode. Then I binged the first season on Netflix just in time for the start of the second season on SyFy, quickly falling in love with this bizarre, often confounding, but fantastically unique slice of fantasy genre storytelling. And so much has changed since the pilot! I mean, that’s true of any show, but especially The Magicians. I desperately want to talk about everything which went down in the finale, but in the age of Peak TV I can’t assume anything.
So, I’m going to take a page from TVLine and offer up the following profile for those unfamiliar with The Magicians or perhaps familiar but still in need of a push to give it a chance:
CREATED BY | Sera Gamble (Supernatural) and John McNamara (Aquarius)
SOURCE MATERIAL | Lev Grossman’s fantasy novel series of the same name. There are three total books in his Magicians series, but the show treats the novels as rough story outlines which can be filled in however they want and deviated from whenever a better idea emerges.
NUMBER OF EPISODES | Twenty-six hour-long episodes over the first two seasons.
PREMISE | Harry Potter with sex, or Harry Potter for adults and featuring post-grad students instead of grade/high schoolers.
SERIOUSLY, THAT’S THE PREMISE? | Kind of. At least that’s how everyone always describes it, largely due to the aggressiveness with which SyFy promoted the show’s early sex scenes. As a result, a woman and a man achieving simultaneous sexual bliss while floating in the air is possibly the only image some people know of the show (the same, oddly enough, also goes for SyFy’s The Expanse. Somebody’s fantasy has clearly been overindulged). To be fair, The Magicians is guilty of sometimes going out of its way to ensure there is one crazy sex scene per episode, taking full advantage of its magical premise to come up with increasingly inventive sexual scenarios.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly since, as io9 put it, The Magicians’ overall treatment of sex has marked it as “one of the most forward-thinking shows on television right now, because it’s exploring a great many aspects of consenting adult relationships in a remarkably honest—and mature—way. There’s no judgment on The Magicians, no Chandler-from-Friends-style gay panic. Everything is permitted. Just about any sexual pairing on the show is possible and plausible.”
The reason there is so much sex is because our primary characters are all college-aged (or just slightly older than that), which is when sexual experimentation is supposed to happen. Throw on top of that the fact that they attend an open-minded, but secret-from-the-rest-of-the-world school for magicians and, yeah, a threesome or two might break out.
But that’s not all there is to the show. This isn’t just Skin: The Magic Years.
WHAT IS THE SHOW REALLY ABOUT? | It is a glimpse at what happens when a central character who is the avatar for every fanboy/girl longing to live out their fantasy slowly realizes that his long-adored fantasy world sucks just as hard as the real world (spoiler: you should never meet your heroes).
In the pilot, this character, Quentin (Jason Ralph), is introduced as a soon-to-be grad student completing treatment for depression in a mental health facility, which he entered due to “feeling like the most useless person in the history of the world.” He tells his counselor he now realizes it is time to grow up, sell the comic book collection, let go of childhood fantasies about what the world could be and embrace what the world is. This is a view echoed by his lifelong friend Julia (Stella Maeve), who has been about as patient as a friend could be while waiting for Quentin to get his shit together. Of course, Quentin is in love with her, and, of course, she already has a boyfriend and doesn’t view Quentin that way.
You think you know where that is going, but you will be stunned by how quickly Quentin and Julia turn into enemies or, at best, frenemies. See, in the world of The Magicians there were a series of The-Lion-the-Witch-and-the-Wardrobe-meets-Lord-of-the-Rings fantasy novels called Fillory and Further. Quentin and Julia’s shared love for these books is what first bonded them when they were kids, but Julia has moved on to law school and wants Quentin to follow her there. Around the time she tries some tough love to get him to start thinking about his future more seriously they are both magically transported to an admissions interview for something called Brakebills University.
Turns out those Fillory and Further novels were based in fact. Magic is real. There is a secret Hogwarts school for those with natural magical abilities. Julia was wrong. Quentin was right to cling to the fantasy.
Naturally, Quentin is admitted to the school, but Julia flunks her interview and is thrown back into the real world, with the effort to magically erase her memory of the encounter proving only partially successful. Thus begins the bifurcation of The Magicians between Quentin’s often whimsical adventures with the friends (two funny upper classmen, an eventual Hermione-like girlfriend, two fuck-ups who barely tolerate him) he ends up making at Brakebills and Julia’s long, dark night of the soul as she makes her way through the underground of the magic world, wanting so desperately to experience what Brakebills denied her for largely obtuse reasons.
Through both seasons, these two halves of the show frequently meet in surprising, often immensely gratifying, but sometimes frustrating ways. Simply put, Julia is the more compelling character than Quentin, but can also grate because the show so consistently drags her down to her lowest possible point that Stella Maeve is forced to wear a near-constant devastated facial expression. Still, the emotional trauma she suffers so immensely towers over everything the Brakebills kids encounter that the ongoing hostilities between the two camps forces you to sometimes root against the heroes.
However, while Quentin and Julia are ostensibly the dual protagonists it is often the co-stars who steal the show, particularly Eliot and Margo as the king and queen of perfectly delivered one-liners and Penny as the hilariously grumpy one of the group.
DO I HAVE TO WATCH IT ALL? | You kind of do. This is not a show where you can simply skip episodes to get to the good stuff, but if you find yourself beaten down by the early episodes of the first season just know that it gets so, so much better.
WHICH SEASON IS THE BEST? | The first season is primarily about learning the full truth of the Fillory and Further novels and building up to Quentin’s prophesized battle with his own Voldermort, a mysterious wizard called The Beast whose identity you’ll likely figure out earlier than you’re supposed. Along the way, there is a fair deal of Brakebills-as-post-grad-Hogwarts (they even have their own version of Quidditch), and the imbalance between the Quentin and Julia halves of the show can be jarring. It all comes together in a brilliant season finale narrated by Quentin, and closes on some killer cliffhangers.
The second season takes a hard turn into pure fantasy, leaving any semblance of these people being students at a school almost completely behind (as meta-joked by a character near the end of the season), but is arguably a more confident (e.g., there’s a full-on rendition of “One Day More” from Les Mis just because they knew they could pull it off) and undeniably funnier show as a result. This is the less grounded-in-reality season, yet it’s also the one in which the characters are forced to grow up, particularly Margo and Eliot.
The season’s various story threads don’t quite come together as brilliantly as they did in the first season, but you get better versions of just about everything else. It definitely ticks off far more “well, I haven’t seen that before” boxes, such as when Quentin and Julia riddle a dragon in a darkened city alleyway and are rendered unconscious as the dragon laments “Fucking millennials.”
WORTH YOUR TIME IF YOU ENJOY… | Angel’s Pylea three-parter, Inventive fantasy scenarios, subverted hero’s journey narratives (seriously, Quentin is the worst hero ever, and the show derives consistent humor from pointing that out and subverting it), heavily serialized fantasy mysteries, stories about found families, a liberal dose of silliness and immature humor, and, obviously Game of Thrones and Harry Potter
YOU SHOULD PROBABLY KNOW… | The Magicians metaphorical treatment of real-life trauma sometimes results in controversial story decisions, which some might regard as brave, others as offensive and yet others as poorly thought-out. For example, the second season temporarily features two villains who are actually both victims of sexual abuse and are thus motivated by sublimated trauma, leading you to question where exactly our sympathies are meant to lie. Surely, they’re not actually asking us to root against these people. Are they?
YOU SHOULD PROBABLY ALSO KNOW… | Magicians characters curse, not as much as those in a Quentin Tarantino movie, but more so than your average cable show. SyFy bleeps out the various f-bombs; Netflix does not.
IS IT COMING BACK? | Yes. SyFy recently renewed it for a third season, promising after last night’s finale: “Magic Will Return in 2018”
WHERE CAN I WATCH IT? | The first season is on Netflix, and the second season is currently available to stream in its entirety through SyFy Now for cable subscribers. Plus, you can purchase individual episodes at all of the usual places.