I initially started watching this series for research reasons -- I wanted an example of a low-budget but well-received fantasy show -- but I'd been meaning to for a while beforehand, having heard numerous rave reviews, and always being interested in finding new fantasy and science fiction shows.
Written by Sera Gamble, formerly of Supernatural (always a bad sign, but Timeless, also written by a Supernatural showrunner, managed to pleasantly surprise me earlier this year -- I may just have to come to terms with the fact that Supernatural has a production bible thicker than the actual bible, and the actual writers have very little control), The Magicians follows Quentin Coldwater, a depressed university graduate looking for a grad school, who's obsessed with the Fillory and Further books -- a novel series heavily reminiscent of the Narnia books. Through a series of strange events, Quentin ends up attending Brakebills, a magical university devoted to teaching its students how to hone their powers.
He, along with classmates Alice and Penny, and older students Eliot and Margo, quickly end up in the sights of the Beast, a mutated magician of enormous power and a savage disposition, who has a connection to Fillory. Meanwhile, Quentin's best friend, Julia, is rejected from Brakebills, and finds herself wrapped up in the world of hedge witches, rejected magicians who practise low-end, dangerous magic. As Julia spirals out of control, she finds herself working with Marina, a dangerous former Brakebills student.
The show's low budget is immediately obvious in any given episode, with magic being shown offscreen as often as it's shown on it, and with magical effects often limited to exclusively what can be done with either editing or simple practical effects. A lot of the budget, it seems, went on the Beast in his few appearances, since the cloud of moths that shrouds his head is undoubtedly the most impressive piece of effects work in the show.
Still, the low budget is rarely distracting -- in fact, it was at its most distracting when the show called attention to it. A moment in the last episode has Quentin describing the Palace Which Cannot Be Seen as invisible 'for budget reasons' and rattling off some comical explanation about how the royals had run out of cash, but in truth, until the episode drew attention to it, I'd not even noticed that it being invisible was even odd.
Good writing can make up for a lot of things, and the writing of The Magicians is -- sometimes good. Or, to be more precise, it could be good. It shows the seeds of greatness. There's a moment towards the end of the series where Quentin, Alice, Penny, Eliot, and Margo all lose their emotions, and it's some of the best written dialogue of the series, alternately funny and sad, telling us more about the characters than the entire series had up to that point.
|Julia and Quentin.|
In general, characters are well written and well acted, and the broad strokes of the scenarios painted in the story are, at least, interesting.
Where the writing really falls down is just on basic structure. The story lacks any kind of cohesive meta-narrative, or even really a cohesive story, and the characters contained within the story never really serve any kind of narrative purpose.
If you removed Eliot, Margo, Penny, or Kady from The Magicians, the story would change only marginally. For that matter, if you plucked out our two leads, Quentin and Alice, and replaced them with – I don’t know, Julia and Penny – then the story would, again, change only marginally.
In a really odd turn, the narrative, plot, and characters of The Magicians exist basically as three distinct entities, and a large part of that seems to be because the show doesn’t have a clear narrative, or even really a cohesive plot. The closest thing to a plot is the ongoing threat of the Beast, but he’s barely a factor in most episodes.
|Penny, Eliot, and Margo. I like Margo's jacket.|
The result of all of these is that The Magicians seems kind of aimless. When it sets out to do something it generally does it well, but it never seems to know what it wants to do with itself.
My other big problem with it is my big problem with a lot of American television -- the shallow cynicism of it all. The Magicians is, in essence, about bad things happening to cynical, arch people whose only character arcs basically amount to 'being cynical and then becoming more cynical.' It's the kind of tone that drives a lot of US television (as for some reason it is apparently endlessly compelling to US audiences), and it is totally unconvincing and actually kind of boring, especially when the cynical tone feels so empty.
The first series ends on an odd note, with Julia having the Beast in a position where she could kill it, but making a deal instead. Really weirdly, the editing for this ending scene also feels really amateurish -- trying for abrupt and instead coming off as 'first year film student.'
I did really enjoy this series, though, and I plan to start watching the second series tonight, time permitting.