The best TV series you aren’t watching: ‘The Magicians’

Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) and Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve) are obsessed with a book series called “Fillory and Further” which sees a group of siblings journeying to a magical land in the ilk of Narnia, sparking an interest for both of them in magic. While these are the seeming last vestiges of their vast departing childhoods, they both end up pursuing magic as adults, when they learn of the existence of Brakebills University. Quentin is accepted to study there, while Julia is rejected, causing her to start her own journey to study magic, regardless of how much danger she puts herself in. Her determination and dogma in pursuing these goals are akin to an addiction, as she completely loses sight of all else. Meanwhile, Quentin falls into the company of the fiendishly and unashamedly talented Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), the distant and grumpy Traveler Penny (Arjun Gupta), Hedge Witch Kady (Jade Tailor) and older students in the form of a vaguely alcoholic Eliot (Hale Appleman) and sarcastic Margo (Summer Bishil).

It seems perhaps easy to draw comparisons between this (very brief) synopsis of The Magicians and Harry Potter, but short of a few scenes on campus involving learning magic, this is where the similarity ends: otherwise The Magicians is far from showing magic to be cool and inspiring a childlike level of fun. Instead, magic is shown to be dreadfully seductive and dangerous in the wrong hands, causing devastating consequences.

The world of The Magicians is made even more rich through the discovery of the magical land of Fillory – often travelled to by journeying through wardrobes, random doors and telephone boxes. Sound familiar? Well of course it does. Chronicles of Narnia is, evidently, another one of Lev Grossman’s inspirations.

Stop waffling and summarise, Goodwin.

We have a gritty, fantasy realism hybrid of Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia if you want to be really simplistic about it.

Mark, what in God’s name is fantasy realism? That is definitely an oxymoron.

Of course it seems like an oxymoron. We’ve all seen fantasy about a billion times. Before the dystopian young adult franchises in the form of Hunger Games and Maze Runner, we all endured the fantasy genre glut of films and TV shows, from Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings to Eragon (and then that really irritating phase of vampires and werewolves – thanks for nothing Twilight). We feel like we’ve seen it every which way. That is, until shows like Game of Thrones came along and we realised that fantasy shows could actually also be adult and focus upon adult topics. See, it’s much more difficult to relate to the world within Game of Thrones because even though it is adult fantasy, it still depicts a world so starkly in contrast to our own. I’m almost entirely certain that none of the people watching Game of Thrones have actually had to assassinate anybody, nor don their face to do the crime. However, if you have, then hit me up, I like to learn new skills. In contrast, The Magicians roots its magic within the real world. The characters inhabit present day New York, for starters, as well as responding to situations in a very similar way to how we would. In the case of some characters, that’s going entirely off the rails and drinking their problems away. They swear, they fight, they have sex – and they also can cast magic along the way.

It’s this casting of magic that also seems more realistic. It’s presented in the same way that picking up any skill is, and it’s all about subtle and exact finger movements, in the style of finger tutting:

This makes the show much more visually impressive, as well as making it more understandable when certain characters cannot perform certain spells. I never really got to grips how it could be that characters in Harry Potter would struggle with pronouncing “Wingardium Leviosa” and vaguely gesturing their wand. In the books, it is even more details, offering the notions that the way in which spells are cast is affected by myriad other variables, such as weather conditions and distance you want the spell to travel – which makes sense, in the same degree that you have to change the way that you throw a ball with these same constraints. Furthermore, a lot of effort is made into making the magic appear to interact with the atmosphere around it. For example, Quentin’s first display of magic involving a set of cards gives a certain weight to the way the cards move as though they have been rotated like one of those revolving book displays you see in libraries. It’s these small touches that really amplify the effectiveness that the magic has within the show.

The Magicians is also unafraid to be brutal. There’s no holding back like there is in Potter, with Harry nobly holding back any offensive spells and choosing instead to perpetually use Expelliarmus (a stupid move, if you ask me, especially when you’re faced with the most evil wizard of all time. There’s a time for morals, Harry, and when the safety of your friends and the planet is in jeopardy, that ain’t it). You see some characters using magic for really messed up purposes, like instantly maiming and killing people, chopping off hands, etc.

It is neither the magic, nor the adult content either through more violence or through sex and drinking and drugs that is the most compelling aspect of The Magicians, however. It’s the realism and the integrity that are afforded all characters within the ensemble cast. In contrast to a film telling this story, where you have an immediate sense that there is a beginning and an ending, we are granted an unprecedented view into these peoples’ lives and see how they are altered and changed by what they have seen. At its heart, The Magicians tells a coming-of-age story as these characters within their early-20s are thrown into situations in which they are ill equipped to deal with them and find themselves without much in the way of help. It’s disillusioning for them to realise that they are the ones in control of making the decisions. They realise that lots of the people who they hold faith in and trust in are unreliable and do not hold the same beliefs and ideals as they do. In fact, a lot of Quentin’s depression derives from his realisation that the real world is nothing like the idyll depicted in “Fillory and Further”, which is nothing compared to when he actually sees Fillory, and the man behind it… Furthermore, the cast feel like real people who endure real problems, such as depression, trauma, relationship issues and even sexual assault. Moreover, they’re really diverse, giving representation beyond white, straight characters.

In stark contrast to Narnia in which four children stumble into a strange and mystical land and suddenly end up its rulers with zero complications, this trope is turned on its head within The Magicians. Later in the seasons, some of the core characters become in control within a fabled magical land in the form of Fillory, and instead of ignoring that concept, the show instead embraces it and how the characters rise to the challenges and the struggles of leadership.

I mean, there’s fantasy realism, Goodwin, but then there’s just depressing. You’re not making this seem fun.

I’m not am I? Sure, The Magicians is really gritty and deals with some major ideas and themes. However, on top of this is the core cast of characters and the relationships they have with each other. As well as this being the source of conflict, it’s also a source of unity and heartwarming moments. The show is also fiendishly funny, with the characters frequently referencing the absurdity of the situations they have got themselves into, even when it’s life threatening – much in the same way as many of us tell jokes in awkward situations. Or at least I do, don’t know about you.

Furthermore, on top of all of this realistic depiction of magic in the hands of characters who we feel like we could meet on the street, The Magicians is unafraid to take risks and explore different ways of telling a story past the obvious A-B narrative structure.

You’ve converted me, Mark. Where can I watch it?

Well this is where it becomes a modicum more complicated, for sure. If you’re in the US, you can stream this without too much difficulty on Netflix, and it is aired on Syfy.

For those of us in the UK, we are left with much fewer options. I discovered The Magicians by purchasing it on iTunes – and in fact, the first three seasons are available there. In the UK The Magicians is broadcast by 5STAR yet it is unfortunately unavailable for streaming on My5. However, for those of you with cable, I’m confident there must be some way to view it on here, or for those of you who are no strangers to illegal streaming, you too have my permission to view it.

Closing statement, Mr Goodwin?

Goodness, alright. The Magicians is a show that is pretty much impossible to predict week on week. The characters you think you know constantly surprise you, but they are bolstered and supported by exquisite character development throughout the series. Magic is not front and centre of the series and the focus is much more upon the characters as they understand and digest this new world, which is a pleasant new spin on the fantasy genre that has pervaded popular culture since a certain bespectacled ten-year-old. Bold, refreshing and hilarious, you should be adding this show to your watchlist as soon as availability allows.

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