The Magicians Series Premiere Spoiler-Free Review

Syfy's new fantasy series The Magicians debuts tonight. Here's our spoiler-free review...

The Magicians Season 1 Episode 1

With source material that was begging to be adapted to the screen, Syfy’s The Magicians is Harry Potter for an older generation. Based on Lev Grossman’s trilogy of the same name, the story of a hidden world of magic schooling poses the question, “Does the fulfillment of a fantasy cure all of life’s ills?” which will almost certainly be explored in the series centered around a burgeoning magician named Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph). The successful adaptation of the novels depends mostly on making the characters compelling enough to carry the already strong story of the dangers of unleashing poorly understood powers.

In the series premiere titled “Unauthorized Magic,” viewers are introduced to Quentin, a sullen and depressed grad school candidate whose aimlessness and disillusionment will be very familiar to those trying to find a meaningful livelihood after college life has spat them out into the real world. Quentin is hipster nerd who is awkward at parties and often lost in his own thoughts and intellectual pursuits. The rut he is stuck in is evidenced by the fact that he re-reads his favorite fantasy series, Fillory and Further, over and over. Between his taste in books and his talent for sleight-of-hand magic, Quentin is aching for some real magic in his life.

His path to the Hogwarts-like Brakebills University makes for an enjoyable if predictable pilot episode, and his childhood friend, Julia (Stella Maeve), is along for the ride, although her motivations are less clear. Julia’s story in the novels isn’t explored until the second book in the Grossman series, but her separate path into the world of magic is almost more interesting because it of its unusual hidden depths, which differs from Quentin’s more familiar, Potter-esque story. Unfortunately, the pilot doesn’t give us a believable reason why Julia would care about magic the way Quentin does. Hopefully, her more powerful story from the novels will emerge as the show progresses.

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Other characters who get a little lost in the pilot are Eliot (Hael Appleman) and Margo (Summer Bashil), who act as Quentin’s guides as he enters the campus community at Brakebills. Although these two mirror the partying fervor of Eliot and Janet (the book character off of whom Margo is presumably based) in the novels, they don’t seem to have much else to do in this exposition-heavy pilot episode. This deficiency will no doubt be remedied in the future, but it remains a weak point of the premiere.

The most intriguing parts of the pilot are the mysteries that are laid before the audience. The episode begins with a strange meeting between the dean of Brakebills (Rick Worthy) and a woman who urges him to get “them” ready. There are dream sequences in which Quentin travels to the world in the Fillory novels he’s so fond of. At one point, Quentin encounters a couple of crestfallen Brakebills students whose classmates have disappeared under unknown circumstances. And then there’s Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), who comes from a family of magicians, including a brother who’s missing.

Perhaps all of these disparate ingredients were too much for the pilot to hold, but although they did impact the character development, they were no less compelling. In fact, the episode’s conclusion, derived straight from one of the most memorable scenes in the first Grossman novel, was particularly powerful and definitely worth the wait. Likewise, the involvement of a surprising standout character, Penny (Arjun Gupta), also added spice to the somewhat flat Hermione-Harry vibe between Alice and Quentin.

Pilots are a tricky business; some suffer from bland plots, others get lost in exposition. While The Magicians does fall in the latter category causing some characters to lack depth, the story is anything but bland. With a number of paths towards mystery and adventure (perhaps too many) already established, there’s plenty of material to explore, both from the novels and this already quite different screen adaptation. Fans of the Grossman trilogy and of the fantasy TV genre are both sure to be pleased.

Luckily, neither will have to wait long to enjoy the pilot. Although Syfy will officially premiere the series on Monday, January 25 at 9pm ET, viewers can catch an early release of the first episode on December 16 at 10pm ET, after the final installment of the Childhood’s End miniseries.

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3.5 out of 5