As has been pointed out countless times, we’re currently living in the age of Peak TV. Even though flagship series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad are over, there’s still way too much quality television to go around, which makes parsing out exactly what is worth your while all the more difficult. Syfy has admittedly not been a place for appointment television for some time now, but with this year’s The Magicians, the network heralded a return to form that brings to mind the Syfy classic Battlestar Galactica, making a strong case for its inclusion on your watchlist.
Based on the trilogy of books by Lev Grossman, The Magicians has been crudely described as “Harry Potter for adults,” which is both a somewhat accurate and way too simple descriptor. The show follows an ensemble of adult magicians who attend a school for magic, sure, but the “adult” part is key, as the series’ first season—in keeping with the spirit of the books—tackled mature issues like depression, mental health, sexual assault, and the reality of complex human relationships, all the while remaining an exciting and entertaining TV show about magic.
This feat of marrying the concepts of fun and thrilling sci-fi storytelling with adult thematic material is no simple task, and the show had some stumbles in early episodes to be sure, but once it found its footing, showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara hit a stride that provided some of the most addictive and satisfying TV storytelling of the year so far.
The Magicians wrapped up its 13-episode first season last night with one of its best—and most shocking—installments yet, as what began as a hilarious magical adventure to a fictional realm quickly turned into the dark and complex character drama that we’ve come to expect from the series, with Gamble and McNamara handling difficult themes with tact while the show’s performers absolutely shined.
Jason Ralph’s performance as the show’s protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, has been terrific from the pilot, and Ralph only grew more confident in the role as the show progressed. Quentin is a tricky character to pull off, as Grossman’s depiction is unabashedly whiny and somewhat selfish, which is all in service of the character’s arc that progresses throughout the trilogy. Ralph made Quentin’s persona palatable while maintaining some of the character’s rougher edges, and it culminated in some really wonderful work over the course of the season.
And while Arjun Gupta, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Hale Appleman, and Summer Bishil have all done excellent work over the course of the season—which only got better as the episodes progressed, especially with regards to Gupta and Appleman—the MVP of the show thus far has been Stella Maeve, whose turn as Quentin’s childhood friend Julia Wicker was downright stellar. Julia’s a fascinating character in that she gets a taste of the “magic school” life before being turned away, only to forge ahead with learning magic on her own as she’s unable to let go of the reality that magic exists. In the books, we don’t learn Julia’s story until the second book, The Magician King, but for the series Gamble and McNamara made the decision to tell Julia’s story in parallel with Quentin’s.
While I’ll admit I was skeptical of this choice at the beginning of the show, it turned out to be a stroke of brilliance. Simply chronicling life at Brakebills School of Magic (and beyond) might have been enough, but to simultaneously show Julia’s journey with hedgwitches and folks who learn and perform magic on the streets, outside the comfort and safety of a school, offered new shades to Julia and Quentin’s characters. And the difficult arc that Julia’s character takes is made all the more emotional through Maeve’s measured and vulnerable performance.
And then there’s the show’s meta-textual depiction of Fillory, which again is one of the main thematic drivers of the books. Quentin is a character obsessed with the fictional world of Fillory, from a series of books he holds close to his heart, only to discover that in addition to magic, Fillory actually exists. Moreover, the reality of this fictional escape that Quentin’s been clinging to his entire life is just as dark and damaged as reality. While this thematic throughline will no doubt be explored further in the show’s subsequent seasons, Gamble and McNamara did a solid job of driving home this particular parallel, and credit to the writers for not shying away from such complicated thematic material—especially for a show on Syfy.
The Magicians was renewed for a second season after only three episodes, and Syfy has indeed shown considerable support for the show’s adult subject matter (including the frequent use of semi-censored profanity), so it’s clear the network is happy with the direction this show is taking. The Magicians serves as a statement from Syfy that they’re eager and willing to jump into the “Second Golden Age of TV” conversation with a show that’s decidedly more complex and thought-provoking and, as a result, more satisfying than some of its simple genre fare. Of course it helps when you’re working with source material as phenomenal as Grossman’s books, but Gamble and McNamara have made significant deviations from the novels that have proven to be smart decisions that only enrich the viewing experience, whether you’ve read the books or not.
I know “Peak TV” can be overwhelming, and there’s only so much time in the week. But with sharp and entertaining storytelling, fantastic performances, and themes that make a show about magic more grounded and relatable than half the shows on television, The Magicians is a welcome addition to the TV landscape—both as a whole and in terms of genre fare—and I can’t wait to see how the show progresses in Season 2.
And if you’ve made it this far and haven’t yet watched The Magicians, every episode is available to watch on Syfy.com.