Friday, April 15, 2016

The Magicians (TV show): Season One review

    The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a fantasy novel which is one of the few forms of unauthorized spin-off which I approve of. Not quite parody but written with a clear intent to examine themes of the original in a way different from the original. Watchmen took the characters of the Charlton universe to tell a story about superheroism in general. Here, The Magicians takes the premise of the Harry Potter books (a magical boarding school), Narnia (a far-off-magical land visited only by children), then puts a bunch of adults in both to see how they react to the setting assumptions.

    When the SyFy channel announced they were adapting the books to television, I was skeptical because the books were short and mostly about dealing with the privileged white male main dealing with how boring he finds the world. The appeal of was the supporting cast more than the lead. So, with the knowledge they would be expanding and altering the main text, I was curious to see what would happen. So, after the first season, what do I think?  This is a really entertaining show.

    Entertaining but dark.

These SATs determine whether you learn magic. I'd have studied more if I'd known this was the case.
    The Syfy channel is usually a fairly tame cable network but they really push the envelope in this series with partially censored language, near-nudity, and violence. It's interesting because they don't go the full road toward something like HBO but go absolutely as far as they can with the standards they abide by. Honestly, I can't help but wonder if the show wouldn't be better if they went the whole hog and showed it with none of the censorship on DVD. For that, we'll have to wait until its release in said format, though.

    The premise is Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) and his friend Julia (Stella Maeve) are a pair of gifted students graduating college with the former dealing with Depression. Quentin's method of dealing with his condition is to retreat into the children's book series Fillory and Further, which is a stand-in for the Chronicles of Narnia. This is already a transformation as the characters are no longer high-school students but fits better for the adult themes they want to address.

Penny and Kady are two of the most interesting characters in the show. Really, Penny they should be the stars.
    Quentin and Julia are invited to take a test to admit them into a magical graduate school called Brakebills, stunning the pair as it upends their view of how the world is supposed to work. Quentin manages to barley pass the admittance test while Julia doesn't, causing a break in the narrative. While Julia disappears from the first book until the second, they wisely choose to follow the two characters in parallel in the series.

    Quentin is stunned by the amazing wealth, power, and privilege on display in Brakebills as well as the opportunities real magic presents. Julia, however, cannot turn herself from the revelation magic is real and destroys all of her relationships as well as torpedoes her promising career opportunities in pursuit of even the smallest grams of magic. This leads to a ruthless group of "hedge wizards" who act more like drug dealers than magicians. The conflict between the haves and have-nots of the wizarding world which is a big part of the season's first half.

Alice is there for all of our inappropriate Hermione-esque dreams.
    Quentin soon befriends a Hermione-like magical overachiever named Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), a angry psychic badass named Penny (Arjun Gupta), a witch with a secret named Kady (Jade Tailor), and a pair of decadent second years named Eliot (Hale Appleman) and Margo (Summer Bishil). The friends, and I use the term loosely, eventually discover themselves targeted by a mysterious Slenderman-esque monster from another dimension called the Beast. Joining together to survive it's wrath, they all find themselves on a one-way path toward the actually real dimension of Fillory.

    There's a bit of meta-commentary to the fact they took a story which was already "Hogwarts + Narnia for adults" then made it even more adult for broadcasting. There's a lot more sex, violence, betrayal, and adult themes than in the original novel which had a lot more than their source material. I'm not complaining, though. It's just kind of humorous as while the original novel had some dark themes, the series does its absolute best to make being a wizard in college Hogwarts as close to a living hell as possible.

Julia is a wonderful character and it's great she's been moved to a major role in the series' beginning.
    This actually undercuts some of the more faithful moments of the series. There's a lot of whimsical stuff in Lev Grossman's novel like turning into foxes to travel across Antarctica, an equivalent to quidditch called welters, and even adultery can be chalked up to fox pheromones. In the series, this stuff often appears but is in the middle of serial murder, cancer, clinical depression, the death of parents, child molestation, rape, and worse. Which is something which will bother fans of the book but I think actually improves the series. I've been looking for good grimdark urban fantasy for some time and this is really hitting the spot for me.

     Quentin remains the weak link of the series with his basic personality being unlikable and withdrawn but having it linked to a medical condition makes me less likely to condemn him for it. Quentin comes off less like an entitled rich kid and more like someone who is desperately trying to hold onto one of the few good things in his life. The rest of the cast is more interesting with Penny being the most likable character. Not only is it nice to see a man of Indian descent portrayed as an intimidating "cool" character with a healthy sex life, he's also just plain likable.

The Beast is the most terrifying use of moths since Silence of the Lambs.
    The women of the series are the real stars, though with Alice, Julia, and Kady all being incredibly interesting characters with important motivations beyond learning magic. The fact they drive the majority of the story and have roles other than being love interests to the male characters makes this unusual in the genre. Indeed, in a very real way, Quentin and Penny are the love interests rather than the reverse. Unfortunately, at one of them becomes the victim of sexual violence at the end of the series which has proven controversial among sci-fi fans. Fair warning and let the viewer beware.

    World-building fans will note the magic of the series makes no attempt to be consistent or follow a path but is simply "weird and whimsical in a dark world of amoral ruthless people." It's an interesting juxtaposition but will cause a lot of people to turn their heads sideways when things like time-travel, genies, wishes, and other stuff just gets causally brought up without any attention to how it might affect things. This is a series about emotions and characterization versus the way magic works, which is summarized best as, "It just does."

Alice wandered in from a more idealistic series. Also, no one told her Brakebills doesn't have uniforms.
    The villains in the story are really well-done with the Beast being a character who manages to invoke the best of the early Marble Hornets' Slenderman and also the kind of childhood terror which Voldemort was capable of when you were twelve. He's a somewhat silly figure in the same way serial killers often are to themselves but not their victims. I also am a big fan of Marina (Kacey Rohl) who is delightfully evil and sexy in a way which is thoroughly understated.

    The season finale ends on a cliffhanger which doesn't finish the events of the first novel but actually swerves and creates an entirely new plotline. Given I felt the sequel novels were weaker than the original ones, I've got to say I think this was the right call. I think it will frustrate some fans, though, who expected to see more resolution to the storyline's main plot.

I swear, I think I got my Masters here.
    In conclusion, The Magicians is probably one of the best things to come out of SyFy since The Expanse. It's gritty dark urban fantasy with a surreal childish twist to it as if to underscore how absurd this all is. I think fans of urban fantasy, dark fantasy, and fantasy noir will enjoy thid. I'm not sure about fans of the original novel but I suggest they check it out as well. A warning, though, it does delve into some nasty stuff.


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