The foul-mouthed, misanthropic, and powerful magicians of Syfy’s The Magicians are back for a second season, and they’re saltier than ever. The TV series adaptation of author Lev Grossman’s deep, wildly compelling The Magicians trilogy finally got off the ground last year after a lengthy period of development, and while Syfy was a somewhat odd fit for the material given its intense focus on quarter-life-crises and malaise, the show actually found a solid middle ground between effects-driven magicians fun and a serious look at depression and traumatic issues like sexual assault. That balance continues in Season 2, albeit with a bit more of a focus on the former aspects over the latter given the significant plot developments, but it continues to be a fun and consistently surprising ride.
Season 2 begins mere minutes after the shocking events of the Season 1 finale, in which almost all of the main characters were killed by the mysterious creature known as The Beast, with his identity finally revealed. This being a show called The Magicians and all, you probably expected a resurrection of some sort, and indeed the mess is (mostly) cleaned up before the first commercial break. From there, however, Season 2’s main plot drive comes into focus, as Quentin, Eliot, Margo, and Alice set about finding a way to kill The Beast once and for all—this time from inside Fillory, the magical world from Quentin’s beloved Fillory and Further kids books that it turns out is actually real.
But as the main driving force of these first few episodes is tracking down a way to kill The Beast, each character has their own troubles to address. Julia (Stella Maeve) has made her deal with the devil and is now working with The Beast back on Earth in order to track down the creature that violated her and killed her friends. She ropes a familiar face or two into her plan, but this particular plot point is hindered by Season 2’s most glaring problem: the miscasting of The Beast.
Charles Mesure is a fine actor, but his take on The Beast feels off from the start. He’s played with a sort of fanciful non-interest in what’s going on around him, amusing himself by singing songs and throwing out quips like they’re going out of style. Perhaps it’s my familiarity with (and intense love of) the books, but everything about the performance rings false. The Beast is a disgusting, twisted creature with a tragic past. In the show, however, The Beast feels like he just stepped off the stage of a dinner theater performance and is mugging for the audience every chance he can get. He’s neither menacing nor compelling, and given that he’s the main antagonist here, that’s a glaring issue.
On the flipside, the MVP of The Magicians Season 2 is Hale Appleman. Eliot is one of the more complex characters from the books, and in Season 2 his main arc is coming to terms with his reign as High King of Fillory. As High King, Eliot is the only member of the group who’s not allowed to travel back to Earth, and thus is forced to face his kingdom alone for long stretches of time. Appleman knocks it out of the park here, infusing Eliot’s reign with plenty of wit and one-liners while also giving the character some serious depth and complexity. Indeed, the show’s writers don’t simply use this plot point as a gag, but instead are keen on diving into the psychological effects that being king has on an alcoholic, possibly manic-depressive like Eliot. Appleman does a tremendous job of showing just enough of a crack in Eliot’s witty façade to let the humanity—and pain—shine through.
The season’s other MVP is Eliot’s BFF, Margo. Summer Bishil was mostly used as a one-liner machine throughout Season 1 because, well, she kills at it. But thankfully, she’s given more to do in Season 2, and Eliot and Margo arguably become the most compelling characters of the season—at least in the first four episodes that I saw. Margo recognizes Eliot’s pain and sadness and also serves as something of a Voice of Reason for the whole group, which comes in handy as they’re bumbling their way around Fillory like the gaggle of self-obsessed twentysomethings that they are.
Indeed, the change of setting to Fillory in Season 2 proves to be a welcome development. There are still scenes set on Earth, but the majority of the action takes place in Fillory, and the writers don’t shy away from finding the humor in the situation at every chance they can get. There’s a Dirty Dancing gag in the first episode that’s among the funniest TV moments of the past year, and when the Magicians writers go in on jokes, they swing for the fences. Of course sometimes that results in groan-worthy one-liners or punchlines, but when the comedy works, it works.
Jason Ralph continues to shine as the show’s protagonist Quentin, Arjun Gupta channels Charlie Chaplin in a subplot involving Penny’s broken hands, and Olivia Taylor Dudley goes through a significant evolution as Alice in these first few episodes back that marks a bit of a change of pace for the character. Book readers will be happy to know that the Season 1 finale did not mark the end of the show’s adaptation of the first Magicians book, as the first few episodes of Season 2 cover that material as well. We’re not in The Magician King territory just yet, but it feels like the writers are doing something of a “remix” with the novels instead of sequentially adapting the events.
All in all, The Magicians Season 2 is mostly off to a great start. It has a pretty serious villain problem that prevents it from a cohesive greatness, but the charisma and wit of the cast and writers go a long way towards smoothing things over. Grossman’s source material is dense, introspective, and not exactly the most TV-friendly of fictions, but this Syfy adaptation has carved out a fine niche of its own. The Magicians: The Show and The Magicians: The Books are two separate entities, and while the series may never be as wholly satisfying as the novels, the writers have embraced the differences and are carving out a path that’s nevertheless well worth traveling down.
THREE STARS – Good