What if Harry Potter were a twenty-something tongue-tied twerp still nursing a childhood obsession with the Narnia books when suddenly thrust into the magical world via grad school? That’s the packed premise of Syfy’s “The Magicians,” an engrossing and inventive television adaptation of the popular Lev Grossman novels. Despite its familiar cultural markers, don’t let the traditional monomythic structure fool you: yes, Quentin Coldwater is a clueless prodigy we’ve all seen before, yes the school is run by a mysterious wizard who knows all and divulges little, yes our villain appears unusually interested in the seemingly ordinary protagonist. But it’s this accessible skeleton that allows the flesh of the story to coalesce with clever focus and adult intent.
Quentin (Jason Ralph) has never felt exactly right in this world. With a history of mental health hospitalization and a security blanket attachment to a fantasy book series about the magical land of Fillory, he has difficulty connecting to anyone but his best friend Julia, an ambitious yupster who has long since outgrown their mutual Fillory nerdery. Quentin is on the precipice of a Yale PhD program when he and Julia are both plucked from the mortal realm to take the entrance exam for Brakebills, an upstate New York Hogwarts for post-grads with complicated, specialized powers. While Quentin wows administrators with a burst of card magic that even he finds ineffable, Julia (Stella Maeve) is soon rejected, dejected, and set on a junkie’s path toward unsavory magical discovery that progressively resembles a villain origin story of its own.
“The Magicans” distinguishes itself from other fantasy television series in how it expertly grounds itself both in pure magic and contemporary realism. The zippy, often laugh-out-loud dialogue and sharp comedic timing of the impressive collective ensemble keeps the narrative pace fresh, peppered with frequent contextual reminders that this world is still very much within our own. Additionally, the academic language of Brakebills rings natural to the ear despite its ethereal origins, and instead of showy wand wavery and beams of light, the spell-casting involves more intricate hand chorography than overblown CGI. It is this brightness that buoys the series and keeps its inherent darkness and eye toward the unsettling from sinking us too deeply into the mythology. As someone who is drawn to the Harry Potter model as much as Quentin is to Fillory, I’m eager to witness how the showrunners will continue to unfold this stock story using novel approaches.