From executive producers Sera Gamble and John McNamara and based on the best-selling novels by Lev Grossman, the Syfy series The Magicians pushes genre boundaries and takes storytelling risks in exciting ways that have already lead to a fourth season pick-up. If you have yet to tune in and check it out (and you really should get on that!), the story is centered on Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) and his 20-something friends, as they discover their magical abilities and defeat evil creatures who threaten to destroy the magical world they’ve come to know.
While at WonderCon to discuss writing and running a TV series, showrunner Sera Gamble stopped by the Collider interview suite to chat about what it’s like to hear such a strong reception for a series that she’s also a fan of, herself, which character’s storyline was the hardest to crack this season, which episode was the most difficult to pull off, whether they ever get nervous about the ambitious moves they make, what it’s like to be able to say “fuck” uncensored, what it’s like to be a showrunner, juggling two TV series (she’s also doing You for Lifetime, premiering in September), and how excited she is to do Season 4 of The Magicians.
Collider: What’s it like to hear how strong the reception has been to Season 3?
SERA GAMBLE: It’s always a great relief, when you work that hard on something and you put it out there and people don’t hate it, first of all. It’s funny because, on the one hand, technically speaking, they’re the fans of a show that we are making to be watched, but also, we’re all part of the fandom of Lev Grossman’s world, so I get excited when new people find the show and get introduced to it. I was so captivated by it when I found his books, years ago, so I feel like I’m bringing more people in to this thing he dreamed up.
Is it weird to be in that position where you were a fan of the material and now, here you are, putting the show out there?
GAMBLE: It’s awesome, actually. I had a couple of nights, early on, where it was a little tough to sleep because I was really worried about not being able to do it justice, but at a certain point, you have the task ahead of you, and you just have to jump in. One thing that was really fortunate for John McNamara and I, in doing that, was that Lev Grossman was so supportive and so savvy about the way that television works. Part of why The Magicians is what it is, is because he has consumed so much film and television and so many books in this genre, so he understood that the storytelling we were going to be doing was a little different. When we started to diverge from his material, a little bit, or told the story in new ways, he encouraged us to go further. He’s not shy to tell us when he disagrees. We have wonderful conversations about stuff. We have creatively really exciting conversations about magic rules. People who aren’t into it would be falling asleep while we get into the intricacies of the finger positions, and stuff. But fundamentally, he is in support of the show being its own thing. I think he’s really enjoying the evolution. At least, that’s what he’s saying to us, so I hope it’s true.
Which character’s storyline would say was the hardest to crack, this season?
GAMBLE: Well, Penny was the one that surprised us the most because there came this moment in time where, in a traditional model, you would save him from death. Arjun Gupta is a series regular and we like him. We don’t want him off the show. We were all sitting in the room saying, “This is the part where we save him, but we’ve done that already.” And so, the conversation became about, “Well, we need to actually kill him. So, what happens, if we kill him? What next? He dies, and then what?” For me, those were some of the most exciting conversations of the season. The flip side of all of that was Alice’s story, this season. Hers was challenging because it was so important to us not to land in a definitive place too soon with her. She’s having a crisis because she doesn’t know who she is, and that’s not something that resolves in two episodes, when you’re actually a 24-year-old, out in the world. That’s something that can linger for a really long time, and it’s uncomfortable. It was an interesting writing challenge, to continue to track that without making it too pat, or without solving it, or without saying, “Well, here is what she believes now.” We wanted to always leave open the possibility that she was going to keep searching, which is what she does all season.
Was there an episode this season that you felt was the hardest to pull off?
GAMBLE: The musical episode stopped the room cold. John had “Under Pressure” in mind, really early. It was the first time we went into the room, knowing that there would be musical numbers in an episode. John tends to just throw them in when he’s writing, and not tell me. And then, the script will be a couple days late because that’s another thing he likes to do. I say all of this with love. But then, he’ll just pop his head in my office and be like, “Just so you know, there’s a $200,000 musical number in the episode,” and then, he’ll just leave. But in this instance, this was the episode where the quest took them to a musical place. Starting from there, it proved really challenging. We cycled through a lot of ideas that didn’t work. I don’t claim to have a mind for musical theater. I don’t really gravitate towards it. There are some musicals that I love, but I’m not a musical theater junkie. It kind of annoys me that they sing about their feelings. So, I think it’s useful to have two partners on a show, one of whom is the biggest musical theater geek you’ve ever met, and the other one is like, “Please turn that off.” Then, you know that I’m really making him earn it, in the episode. Ultimately, I think that’s why we were able to crack the nut of that episode. John kept throwing all of these really fascinating musical ideas at the problem, and I kept saying, “I will only be able to understand this, if you explain it to me without music in it.” And so, ultimately, somewhere in those two approaches, we found our way. It’s so light and fun. It feels effortless when you watch it now, but sometimes that’s a lie.
You make a lot of ambitious moves in this show. Does that ever make you nervous? Are there things that you do, where you’re worried about how people will react?
GAMBLE: I’m always a little nervous we’re going to fall flat on our face, but I’m completely exhilarated by the risks we take on the show. From the very first day we all got in the room, on the show, the feeling and vibe among the writers and creators of the show has always been one where we just want to try everything. We found a world we could play in that offers so many tonal and structural possibilities. I think we had all made “regular” TV before, and we saw our chance to make TV that couldn’t be classified, so it’s worth the risk.
What’s it like to be able to say “fuck” on this show?
GAMBLE: Okay, it’s very important to say “fuck” now. I’m really proud of the fucks, I have to say. It’s a thing I’ve been annoying with our generous overlords about. They didn’t make the world and they didn’t make the rules, but there have been some standards and practices on basic cable, and I just wouldn’t take, “We’re done talking about it,” as an answer. I don’t think I was rude about it, but I also just kept bringing it up. I fell like content is so important. In this landscape, you have to be able to compete with Netflix and HBO, and places where they can say and do whatever they want and show you everything. I just watched Altered Carbon, and there is so much penis in the show. There’s like a lot of penis, right in your face, a lot of boobs, and there’s some vag in that show. We’re over there on Syfy, so we at least need a few fucks. We were dipping the sound on the fucks, for the first couple of seasons, and some people thought it was fun and some people thought it was a little distracting. We had two choices – either we’d write the line, as we believe it would be said by humans and as we believed the characters would speak, who were characters of that age, in that place, or we’d have to network TV-ize their dialogue and use the word frickin’ or friggen’ instead. I just didn’t want to do that, this time. I did a lot of work on The CW and thought of a lot of euphemisms for a lot of words. I think we made it work, to the best of our abilities, but I would rather dip the sound and use the real word. At least the audience is on the same level with us and we’re all talking about the same thing. The reason people are hesitant to change things for a show is because then, every show from there on out is like, “Well, The Magicians is doing it.” Probably every show I work on, from now until the end of my career, I’ll be like, “No, I already died on Fuck Hill once.”
What’s it like to be a female showrunner, on a TV series? How does it feel to be somebody who’s in charge and that people look to for answers to their questions?
GAMBLE: Far and away, it’s the most incredible job I’ve ever had in my life. Being a woman who is a showrunner is really interesting, this year, because the cultural conversation has shifted so much towards gender dynamics and gender politics. There’s been a little bit of a tonal shift in the conversation, where people are a little more caught up on the news. More people are asking those questions, and more people are noticing. It’s even a little trendy to talk about it. I’ve been a woman for my whole life. I don’t know how to be a male showrunner. I only know how to be a showrunner in this body, with this identification. I also don’t know what it’s like to go through life with less or more privilege than I have. The only way I could know that is just from talking to other people and listening to their experience. I just try to be mindful and thoughtful with the power that I have. As my career has moved in this direction, I’ve been fortunate to be given the opportunity to run shows for about the last six years or seven years and as more authority has come with that responsibility, perhaps partly because I’m a woman, I’m really mindful that there are people who need opportunities and who haven’t been given a fair shake. Really, what is the point of getting there, if you don’t help other people when you’re there?