'The Magicians' Is the Show Adult 'Harry Potter' Fans Have Been Waiting For
Like many children, I grew up obsessed with magic. And as a '90s kid raised in the UK, my understanding of sorcery was distinctly Harry Potter-flavored: waking up on my 11th birthday to check my mailbox for a Hogwarts acceptance later, sorting my friends into houses, and summoning unforgivable curses at schoolyard nemeses (I swear I'm fun at parties!). But even if your magic was from a different generation of stories -- checking relatives' wardrobes for doorways into hidden worlds, perhaps, or learning Elvish along with your French verb conjugations -- most of us experienced, at some point, these hankerings for a fantastical world beyond our own.
If any of these childhood flights of fantasy ring a bell, then Syfy's The Magicians is made for you. Touted widely as an "Adult Harry Potter," The Magicians is kind of like if the Harry Potter series grew up, gained a sex drive, and lost its youthful idealism -- just like us! Here's why millennial fantasy-junkies should make space in their schedules for the new series, which premiered this week on Syfy (and you can watch the first episode online here).
What is The Magicians?
The series, based on Lev Grossman's book trilogy, is about a depressed, apathetic, magic devotee named Quentin Coldwater (played by Jason Ralph) who finds out that magic is real when he is recruited to attend a prestigious college named Brakebills in upstate New York. Meanwhile, his friend Julia (Stella Maeve) fails the entrance exam, and, after suffering a nervous breakdown, commits to learning magic in the real world along with renegades (aka “Hedge Witches”) who teach themselves spells in the back of a Brooklyn bodega.
So, Brakebills is like Hogwarts?
Apart from the fact that it's for grad students and not 13-year-olds, Brakebills is an awful lot like the iconic wizarding school, with the same British boarding school vibes and pleasing tendency towards social stratification and reliance on young adult sorting rituals. After the entrance exam to test magical aptitude, students are sorted into different disciplines based on their abilities: physical magic (the best partiers), natural magic (granola hippies), psychics (yogis), etc. -- think the Hogwarts sorting hat meets the high-school cafeteria in Mean Girls. In the book, Brakebills even has its own version of Quidditch: Welters, which is basically a giant, magical game of checkers. And once the year begins, Quentin and his new friend -- bookish, super-smart, Hermione-esque Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) -- get into all sort of Hogwarts-esque antics, including accidentally conjuring a horrific beast from another dimension.
There’s also a Narnia subplot
But The Magicians isn't just about a group of teens whisked away from home to learn magical skills. There's also a second layer, a magical realm called Fillory. Since childhood, Quentin has been obsessed with a series of books called Fillory and Further, about five English children who access a magical Narnia-esque land accessed by climbing through the back of a grandfather clock. Much like any kid who has ever used reading as escapism, Quentin views the world of Fillory as something more vivid and real than his own. The twist? Fillory is real, and it gradually starts encroaching on his world and the world of Brakebills -- not least in the form of the terrifying Beast that shows up to terrorize Quentin and his classmates. Whoops.
Isn't Grossman just ripping off JK Rowling and CS Lewis?
Not really. It's more of an homage. Grossman, who is also the book critic at Time magazine, wrote The Magicians as an intentional response to the stories he grew up with. As he said in an interview with Salon: "In a weird way I really felt that I was talking to J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis and trying to tell them about how my life was different from the lives of their characters. I had to explain to C.S. Lewis how poorly I'd been prepared for some of the challenges of early middle age by my obsessive childhood rereading of The Chronicles of Narnia."
So it's intentional on Grossman's part that Quentin and his peers grew up with the same magical stories and fantastical frames of reference that we did ("Avada Kedavra," one character jokes wryly in the second episode), and his books are both a knowing pastiche of fantasy tropes and a way of turning them on their head. While fantasy narratives promise escape, The Magicians highlights the danger of that escapism. Unlike the fantastical realm of Harry Potter, where Harry is the chosen one who uses his powers to save the day, The Magicians suggests that maybe there's no such thing as a chosen destiny, that nothing in life comes easy, and that there's a real danger in looking for fulfillment in worlds beyond our own.
So that's what you meant by "adult" themes?
Yup. Not to give away too much, but there are some very dark ideas at work here. Quentin begins the show in a mental institution (a tweak from the book, but one that packs a punch), and much of the show is a metaphor for -- dare I say it -- millennial alienation, and what happens when you realize that getting everything you wanted as a child isn't everything after all (or, on the flip-side, when the sense of possibility and creative potential you felt as a child begin to become closed off to you). Julia's story in particular is a powerful allegory for professional disappointment in the adult world, as this type-A young woman who was told she could do anything experiences the equivalent of being rejected from the Ivy League (later, her study of magic turns out to have a lot of parallels with drug addiction). Meanwhile, at Brakebills, the going is just as tough. Magic, it turns out, isn't about simply flicking a wand -- it's tedious, repetitive, mind-numbing work, sometimes with brutal consequences. As Quentin's friend Eliot (Hale Appleman) is fond of reminding him, "magic comes from pain."
Sounds bleak. Is there any fun stuff?
Oh, totally. Stylistically, the show feels very cable teen drama -- think HP meets Gossip Girl -- and there's plenty of boozing (both in fancy wood-paneled college common rooms and in Brooklyn speakeasies), cursing, levitating sex, and hunky youths in love triangles whose sex drives are just as robust as their magical aptitude.
The show still has some kinks to iron out -- some of the dialogue is clunky, and the special effects might be jarring to those who are used to fantasy on a Game of Thrones budget. That said, the magical world the show builds quickly captures viewers' imaginations, and based on the source material, there's a ton of potential for something rich and engrossing to grow out of it. Our suggestion: if any of the above strikes a chord with you, tune in. And if you aren't feeling it? Hey, there's always the books.
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Anna Silman is a staff writer at Thrillist and an alum of Salon and Vulture who has read the Harry Potter books way more times than she would like to admit. Find her on Twitter: @annaesilman.