Somewhere in upstate New York, a group of grad students spend their days learning arcane secrets and their nights enjoying enchanted debauchery and scores of foolish adventures. No, I’m not talking about Syracuse. Or Sarah Lawrence. Or Colgate. Or SUNY Stony Brook. Shout out to Stony Brook. Nah, I’m talking about one of Syfy’s shows, The Magicians. With the second season just now going live, I’d like to give you a quick survey of season one, now on Netflix.
While many folks are diehard Harry Potter fans who like their magic schools and danger clad in foreign accents and just-safe-enough-for-kids language, others may find The Magicians more their taste with its torrential usage of “fuck” and more. From the jump, the series establishes itself in a world where consequences are a little too real and grad school just keeps looking like a really bad idea for your mental and physical health. Part childhood memory smashing and part “here’s what magic looks like when you put some good ol’ Americans in the mix,” the show ekes out a space for itself with leads to lust after, a college dean only half as obtuse as Dumbledore, and a plot that depends as much on your suspension of belief as it does on your ability to stomach some dark turns.
In the beginning, we follow Quentin Coldwater. He’s a smart but troubled cat who’s seriously obsessed with magic and a book series about a realm called Fillory. This is due in part to the fact that it’s one of the few stable things in his life; he has mental health issues, and his family’s reactions have driven them apart. Things change for him when he’s invited to test for a school of magic in upstate New York called Brakebills. Helmed by Black Not-Dumbledore aka Dean Fogg, the school is filled with colorful characters who befriend and rival Quentin, including: Eliot, the queer guy who overdresses to compensate for childhood poverty; Margo, the bitchy but pretty chick who’s his best friend; Alice, the “nerdy but pretty when she takes off her glasses” blonde we’ve seen in every romcom ever; Penny, the really hot but dickish guy; and Kady, the secretive “alternative-look” brunette. While this crew enjoys a series of unfortunately preventable events at school, Quentin’s childhood friend, Julia, falls in with a crowd of drug dealers whose product is non-sanctioned usage of magic by less-magical people. Think muggles. But “grittier,” more quippy, and with a love of dark clothing and really unnecessary tattoos.
On paper this is pretty standard casting (-ish. The Magicians works really hard to make sure you know that Penny, who’s Southeast Asian, is attractive and can play the lead-peen roles often reserved for smoldering studs of the hwite variety. And, well, it should.) However, like much of The Magicians, not everything is as it seems and there are detours from the expected.
Anywho, Quentin’s band of not so merry grad students spend much of the season discovering themselves and doing college shit. Until, of course, the big bad reveals itself in The Beast, a cat who walks around with blue moths on his face like a terrible bug lamp. The Beast is…well he’s just plain evil. In the first three episodes he leaves a lot of people dead and at least one person without their sight. So Quentin and crew try to figure out how to stop him. Things happen, discoveries are made and lots of weird shit floats to the surface.
The strength of The Magicians is that it knows when to take itself seriously, and possibly, that it deceives you in its ability to create interplay between that seriousness and much more whimsical notions. In a way, it’s a perfected and surgical usage of Syfy’s most common fare — the show knows that referencing pop culture will be hokey, but it does it anyway because they know that you’ll be crying in the fetal position in two episodes. In its progression, the story toys with your sensibilities, working to keep you off balance by refracting, inverting or deepening tropes and plot lines in ways that can either confirm or subvert your expectations.
The biggest, and most spoiler-free, example here is the idea of Fillory itself. For 75% of the show, Fillory is basically Narnia: a magical and intangible concept that is used as a way to ground Quentin’s character and allow you to understand his thought process, in contrast to “saner” characters. His emotional, logical and even physical connections to the books and concepts anchor him in ways that the “real world” can’t. It then becomes a study in how we use fiction to explain the unexplainable or create logic where there is none. As a commentary on mental health, and its sometimes tenuous relationship with our tangible realities and management of our faculties, The Magicians asks us, “What if the way you interacted with the world was entirely dependent on things outside your control? How would you make sense of things then? How can you trust yourself to make everyday decisions?”
This conversation is a solidly nuanced one, and I think the show succeeds well enough in showing you some of these issues without fetishizing them in a way that could feel exploitative. I mean, as much as it can avoid that. This is a TV show that needs to get ratings and stuff from the general public, who are prob not exactly updated on the latest fight for social justice when it comes to mental health and forms of ableism.
This centering of mental health-by-way-of-metaphor becomes all the more important then when the show flips the script in the latter half of the season. Like Quentin, we are violently torn from a straight path between A and B, thrown into a new set of rules and information that fucks up our expectations and understandings. It’s a hell of a bait and switch, and it works because it mirrors real life in ways that all feel a little too real. Again, going back to this idea of fucking with our nostalgias and safe places, The Magicians does the work to thrust us into a world that it owns, all while paying homage to the worlds of C.S Lewis, J.K. Rowling and others.
By season end, you will be scarred and/or entertained. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is most likely up to your sensibilities and your triggers. A possible dig against The Magicians is that the fanciful is almost always just a small light waiting to be engulfed by a darker undercurrent. And, in some cases, this can rub the viewer the wrong way, edging into exploitative territory reminiscent of Game of Thrones-level fuckery. Despite this, I’d recco this show purely off the fact that it’s probably one of the best works Syfy has put out. It seems that, after years of producing tons of intentionally and unintentionally C-level fare, they’ve refined a framework that can continually produce shows that are B+ and above, don’t need to compete with other channels, and stand on their own and in concert. It builds a space for more shows like The Magicians to exist over at Syfy, while doing Syfy’s hits, like Battlestar Galactica, justice. And considering everything, that’s pretty damn magical in its own right.
Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following: IG | Twitter