Syfy’s The Magicians fills a void in the TV landscape that’s stood empty for a very, very long time. I realized this while watching the first few episodes of season two, which premieres Wednesday, January 25: With its kicky, pulpy blend of quippy dialogue, pop culture references, continual inventiveness, and deeply painful plot twists, the show feels like some long-lost second cousin of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I already liked the show quite a bit in season one (enough to name it one of my favorite TV shows of 2016), but it’s taken a big step up in its second season. The jokes are sharper. The emotional turns are more hard-hitting. And the series’ playful spirit is more evident than ever.
Given that The Magicians is about kids who go to a magic school named Brakebills and end up ruling a magical kingdom named Fillory on another plane of existence, the show’s dramatic stakes are always high. But The Magicians excels because it never forgets that high dramatic stakes only work when they’re rooted in believable emotional stakes. Buffy struck this balance beautifully in a way that many of its imitators struggled to replicate, but that The Magicians seems to understand.
Of course, to many TV fans, comparing something to Buffy is like encroaching on sacred territory. The series, which ran for seven seasons from 1997 to 2003, is a genuine landmark in television storytelling, a pitch-perfect blend of pop culture savvy and dark twists and turns inspired by Marvel comics. Favorably mentioning any other show in the same sentence as Buffy is high praise indeed — and all but inviting the uncompromising scrutiny of its still fervent fan base (of which I am a member).
But I think the comparison holds. In season two, The Magicians is darker, deeper, and just plain better than it was in season one, and it makes a claim for being one of the most unexpectedly great shows on television. How did it pull off such a feat? I traveled to set in Vancouver to find out.
Step one: root genre stories in personal pain
"It felt a little like feeling the elephant in the dark,” says John McNamara, the co-creator and co-showrunner of The Magicians. “There's a trunk, what does that mean. There's a tail, what does that mean. A third or halfway through the season, it was like, 'Okay, here's the show. This is what it is.'"
He’s speaking about The Magicians’ first season, which turned off some fans and critics with a slow, clunky start. The series’ pilot — which you can watch along with the rest of the first season on Netflix — worked too hard to cram too much of its source material, Lev Grossman’s novel of the same name and its two sequels, into one hour of television. That made for an arresting cliffhanger at the end of the episode, at the cost of providing a clear sense of what the show would be (or how it could possibly keep moving at that pace).
McNamara and co-creator Sera Gamble — who, along with producer Michael London, optioned Grossman’s book trilogy with their own money, after an earlier attempt to adapt the books for television failed at Fox — describe the early days of season one as a challenging, sometimes frustrating time.
In particular, when trying to sell the series, many of the networks they pitched insisted the show should only be about the magic school or the magical kingdom, but not both; their attempt to justify the presence of both elements seems to be one of the main reasons behind that strained, overstuffed pilot. But once the first episode was completed, essentially everyone on the show, even at the network executive level, quickly grasped what The Magicians should be.
The solution was to slow way down, a process Gamble describes as finding little doors between plot points in Grossman’s books, then exploring what they entailed. By episode four, The Magicians had found its groove: Each hour would introduce a new magical problem. The characters would find a way around that magical problem. And in the course of doing so, they would rip their personal lives to shreds.
"Something fun and magic never really drives the bus. It always finds its way in there, but it's never really the point of the show. We try to write a show that would also work if magic weren't real, and it were just about the characters,” Gamble says.
The “magical problem” structure might sound limiting, but in practice, it helped the series sample every single dish it could find at the storytelling buffet. Season one saw individual episodes take the form of musicals, of sex farces, of ghost stories. Season two features one memorable hour where the characters collaborate on a magical bank heist.
But all of these ideas rest on a foundation of raw, personal pain. What are you willing to sacrifice to get what you want? And how do you respond when you realize that what you wanted is never going to cut it?
Where other fantasy series attempt to bludgeon the audience into enjoyment with showy visual effects and epic set pieces bankrolled by massive budgets, The Magicians, stuck on basic cable as it is, relies on ingenuity and emotional adroitness to save the day.
Gamble describes herself as “obsessed” with Game of Thrones, but notes that the hit HBO series “wouldn't get out of bed for our budget. … We have to solve problems with cleverness and intimacy and specificity.”
So in The Magicians’ season two premiere, when the characters meet a guardian of Fillory, who blocks their path forward and presents them with a riddle designed to test whether they are truly from Earth, the riddle turns out to concern American pop culture.
That, in and of itself, is a fun gag, but the show pushes it further and further, escalating both the level of pop culture references — which long-running Tim Daly TV show would come to your mind first? — and the way those pop culture references speak to who The Magicians’ characters are as people.
Which brings us to step two.
Step two: craft a surprisingly substantive story of privilege and power undergirding everything
Buffy is famously a “feminist TV show.” That means a lot of things to a lot of people, but at the most basic level, it means that creator Joss Whedon flipped the script on the usual horror movie scenario. On Buffy, the pretty blond girl who would normally be monster bait was actually going to kill the monsters she encountered, in thrilling fashion.
The Magicians isn’t as politically subversive as Buffy, to be sure, but it boasts socially conscious substance of its own, substance that informs everything it does. The show never really makes a big deal of this, but one of its greatest assets is the way its would-be protagonist — a typical, kinda whiny white dude named Quentin Coldwater — slowly realizes he’s not the center of the story, not the hero. If he’s the “chosen one,” it’s total happenstance, an accident. And as he comes to understand this, he gracefully learns how to cede space for others.
In the books, this shift is orchestrated through expanding points of view. The first book is told solely through Quentin’s perspective. In the second book, the story opens up to embrace the perspective of Quentin’s childhood friend Julia. And in the final book, essentially every major character’s point of view is represented. It’s a subtle depiction of how, as we get older, we realize that other people have their own lives and aren’t just extensions of ourselves.
Of course, it also means that people who read these books sometimes abandon them 50 pages in, because Quentin’s such an unlikable git. It’s something Jason Ralph, the actor who plays him, is only too aware of.
“Certainly, he is frustrating because he's not the kind of classic hero that we read about. He doesn't make the choices that we would expect or want from him. He doesn't learn things as quickly as we would want him to — not tasks or magic, but life lessons,” Ralph says. “Knowing that I, as Jason, am more likable than Quentin Coldwater is … gave me a lot of room to try and come in and play him as unlikable as possible.”
When I ask McNamara, who’s not a fantasy fan as a general rule, what first drew him to Grossman’s books, he says he liked that they’re about contemporary kids who discover a magical world.
But he also says he was struck by what the series has to say about power — about expecting to have lots of it as a kid (as Quentin does), and then gradually realizing just how little power you truly have over the world, or even your own destiny (as Quentin also does). In short, The Magicians is about accepting that you’re not the hero. It’s also about accepting that somebody you know might be the hero instead.
“When I was a little kid, a lot of school shootings were happening, and I used to think, if it were to happen in my school, how would I be the hero? I'd tackle the guy or something,” Ralph says. “You never really know who you're going to be until that moment happens. And I definitely wouldn't have been the hero. I probably would have been the kid hiding under the desk. And that's what Quentin realizes.”
Arjun Gupta, who plays the hotheaded Penny who frequently clashes with Quentin, is intrigued by the characters’ distinct relationships to power. “For someone like Quentin, he's seeking power because he feels like that's going to validate him and give him a sense of his own self-worth. I think Penny's terrified of his own power, not that he would admit that.”
The TV show, simply by virtue of having a cast of actors who are right there onscreen, has made Grossman’s subtext text. In contrast to many characters on so many other shows, Ralph is The Magicians’ only regular character who’s straight, white, and male. The series doesn’t make a point to emphasize this — it doesn’t have to. Instead, it trusts the audience to read into the way Quentin gradually figures out how to hand off power to those around him, women and people of color and gay men and on and on.
As is the case in Grossman’s novels, those other characters gradually reveal themselves to be more complex than their archetypes. Eliot, a gay man trying to leave behind dark chapters of his own past, becomes king of another land — and neatly embodies the loneliness of immediate post-college life. Julia struggles to define herself after she’s initially rejected from magic school, and then learns how to grieve after a devastating assault.
And Alice, briefly Quentin’s girlfriend, holds herself ramrod straight at all times, terrified of screwing up and losing herself, as her deceased brother did. (“There are days when I go home when I'm sore from playing Alice, because she's always holding herself together. That's probably a good thing that I feel it in my bones,” Olivia Taylor Dudley, who plays the character, says.)
All of these characters start out as archetypes, but the longer The Magicians runs, the more cracks open up in their veneers, and the more they reveal to the rest of the world.
“What's always going on underneath all of the whimsy and all of the comedy is something quite personal and something hopefully transformative for these people in these new positions of power,” says Hale Appleman, who plays Eliot.
Stella Maeve, who plays Julia, agrees. “On the show, there's something called a shade, which is a person's empathy or lack thereof, the ability to feel for other people. And [the writers] toy with what happens when you don't have that. … It's fascinating to see how we use magic as a tool to relate real human emotions and problems through these characters.”
Step three: hold everything together with a wickedly inventive, visually playful aesthetic
Regardless of its limited, basic cable budget, every detail of The Magicians feels fussed over and carefully considered.
Magic spells are cast via tutting — a kind of finger dancing originally made popular by breakdancers, which different members of The Magicians’ ensemble claim various levels of facility with. (You can see some of it here.)
The show’s recurring cast in season two includes a talking sloth.
And when the characters inherit a throne room, it’s a wild melange of Earthbound influences, with dashes of Chinese and Turkish design elements thrown in amid the standard medieval pillars and the like. After all, if magicians from Earth have been traveling to this magical land for centuries, they’d have brought very different ideas of how things should look.
"There's no reason this would look like Middle Earth,” Gamble says. “Fillory is in some ways preindustrial and in other ways almost steampunk."
The Magicians is never going to look as grand as Game of Thrones; it doesn’t have the money to even try. But Syfy is committed to the series despite its sometimes low ratings, appreciating the way it steadily developed a fan base and earned critical support in season one, and despite its modest coffers (at least in comparison with other genre TV favorites), the show has proven itself capable of creating visual wonders, as with a bridge seemingly made of flowers and cast across the sky.
Buffy was playful in a similar way, famously mounting key episodes that contained only minimal dialogue, or that looked as austere art films, or that were crammed full of original songs. And it’s thrilling to watch The Magicians, especially as season two gives the writers extra room to play, and see the series realizing just how good it can be.
Will that be enough to elevate The Magicians from cult favorite to household name in season two? It’s impossible to say — but at least it’s put its best foot forward.
The Magicians airs Wednesdays on Syfy at 9 pm Eastern. The first season is available on Netflix.