Lev Grossman’s novel, The Magicians, which is only about seven years old and already has two sequels, is something of a unique effort. It isn’t unique in that it is about a young man at a school of magic, but it is an uncommon attempt to mix YA fiction (or, more or less YA fiction), with high fantasy, with something like a pointed disregard for “standard narrative enticements.” It’s almost as though it is working a layered trick to get young audiences to believe that working through school will actually pay off.
Sure, our “hero” Quentin learns there is a school where he can go to learn real magic, but it’s filled with rules, learning magic is monotonous and requires countless hours of study, and the whole thing is likely to drive you mad with frustration. But, if you make it out the other side, you just might manage something really spectacular.
A TV show doesn’t quite have the luxury of really pounding home the drudgery of anything, and the series makes some adjustments to the story anyway, but at least John McNamara (recently of Trumbo fame) is involved in the reworking.
But, the TV show does hammer home the idea that nothing about this is fun. “Magic is a drug,” as the show often suggests, and there are a lot of varying effects when it comes to drug use.
Jason Ralph stars as Quentin Coldwater, and we meet him as a very troubled young man who is so lost in the world that he’s checked himself into a mental hospital. He’s a dreamer without a dream to have, and he spends much of his time lost in thought about a series of books, Fillory and Further, about a group of siblings who find their way to a magical, Narnia-esque land.
His self-induced slacker coma is a cause of constant worry for his best friend, Julia (Stella Maeve), and the trouble is only exacerbated by the approaching interviews the pair of them have with institutes of higher learning.
As the hour approaches, they both accidentally find their way to Brakebills College, a school of magic, and learn that they are about to take a test to see if they can attend. Quentin makes it, but Julia does not. At the last second, Julia manages to circumvent the spell which would wipe her memory, so while Quentin attends classes, Julia is returned to the “regular” world, and falls into her own stupor brought on by the trap of “impotently knowing” that she sprang on herself.
The show bounces between worlds now, following Quentin and his new friends, and Julia’s effort to find some way to learn magic.
Quentin learns that the school of magic is a very weird place, and one that isn’t particularly interested in solving his mental/depression/ennui problems, and is ill-equipped to do so anyway. Still, he makes some new friends who have their own methods and motives, and somehow Quentin gets wrapped up in the school’s most trying ordeals.
Eliot (Hale Appleman) is ahead of Quentin in school, and something like his “adjustment mentor.” He’s interested in little beyond the cool drinks you can make if you know magic, and otherwise avoiding thinking about things too seriously, because at a school of magic there is shit too serious to think about. He’s also the best character currently on television anywhere.
Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) is the catalyst for many of the problems that will plague Quentin, mostly because she is only at the school to find out what happened to her brother, and doesn’t really care what she has to do, or let loose, to discover whatever the school is hiding.
Meanwhile, Julia throws in with some “hedge wizards,” those who study magic without aid or regulation, and Quentin keeps dreaming about Jane Chatwin, one of the characters from the Fillory books, who gives him cryptic advice and may, or may not, be a real person.
What’s surprising about the show, like the book, is that it is almost accidentally about magic. Magic is just another wrinkle in the lives of characters that, for all that this is ultimately something rather “guilty pleasure,” are given a lot of time to simply explore themselves in front of you.
The show doesn’t keep saying, “Magic is a drug,” just for the pseudo-gravity of Julia’s state at being cut off. For all the flash you get when spells are around, and all the sudden shifts inherent in the arrival of magical baddies (like The Beast, who adds his own mix to the show’s parental discretion advisory), The Magicians aims to draw parallels with almost everything it does.
Like the book(s), the show mixes fantastical elements with a show that is a simply about life in college, the struggles of youth, and making bad decisions. It’s as addicting as it supposes magic is, and is one of the better arguments for binge-watching.
It isn’t without its flaws, occasionally losing itself to one of its sides or the other too much, and the “Quentin’s dreaming” episode felt altogether like a rush job, but it’s still as much fun as you’re going to have, and you will get sucked into the characters.
The real question for the show is how it goes forward. Already renewed for a second season, and already a mix of the first two books, the show has to make some real decisions about how quickly it is going to move through the material, if it’s going to stick to the plots of Grossman’s three books. That’s mainly because things get very real before long, involving a lot of things that are tough decisions for a series to make.