Third Time’s The Charm
Yet Another Discussion Of The Magicians
I swore I wasn’t going to do this. As I explained earlier, I have no interest in reviewing TV shows — I don’t want to be the kind of guy who says “I liked this element, but I didn’t like that one, so overall I give this episode a B-.” There’s nothing wrong with that kind of thing, mind you — such reviews are often insightful. I’m just more interested in discussing unusual or important issues which are raised by shows — or by movies, or books, or current events.
Yet here we are. There have been 13 episodes of The Magicians, and this is my third article about it. Hell, there have been over 700 episodes of Star Trek, and I only gave it one article. So what keeps bringing me back? I think the title of one review from a couple months back nailed it — The Magicians is the most interesting show on TV right now. It’s not the best show, mind you, or even the best hour-long live-action science fiction/fantasy drama, although you can make a case for it being the best hour-long live-action science fiction/fantasy drama on traditional American TV.
What makes it so interesting? Well, it’s based (somewhat loosely) on a series of books that are very important to me, but I don’t think that accounts for it , not entirely— The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy means just as much to me, if not more, yet I’m not particularly fascinated by the movie version of it.
There’s also the fact that it’s not another goddamned procedural. Seriously, whoever decided that every promising idea for a show had to fit into a Case of the Week/Monster of the Week format should be shot. Look, I get it — procedurals are easy to make and easy to watch. They’re also the bane of intelligent (or reasonably intelligent) TV watchers. (Full disclosure : one of the shows that I think is better than The Magicians has strong procedural elements, but they’re really well done).
I think the main reason that the show is so interesting is actually a combination of those two factors — even though I’ve read the books, and watched a lot of other TV shows, I generally have no idea what’s going to happen. There are a lot of things to criticize about The Magicians, and many of them involve simplifying aspects of the books, but for all that, the show often manages to surprise me, generally in a pleasant way.
I’d be remiss not to mention the casting, which is absolutely spot-on. The main characters are played perfectly, and in a few cases are better developed than in the books. Jason Ralph is perfect as Quentin, and Stella Maeve brings life to a character who really only got fleshed out in the flashback portions of the second book. Hale Appleman is exactly what Eliot should be, and he’s so damn good at it that I don’t even care that he isn’t disfigured. Summer Bishil is incredibly as Margo/Janet, a character who was never more than secondary in the books, but who is almost as delightful as Eliot in the show. Arjun Gupta’s Penny is very different from the books, and even though I don’t necessarily like the changes themselves, I’m OK with them because Gupta does it so well. Olivia Taylor Dudley’s Alice seems more confident and outgoing than in books, but she plays it really well. There are plenty of other actors who do great work on the show, but I don’t want to spend the whole day in front of my keyboard listing them.
Of course, I should also say that almost everyone who works on the show, both in front of & behind the camera, is very active and accessible on Twitter. Because the show hasn’t quite blown up yet (but it should, and probably will), you can be reasonably confident that they’ll respond if you try to interact with them. OK, it has literally zero bearing on the quality of show, and the network is probably pushing them to do it, but it still makes for a neat experience. Or maybe I’m just easily entertained.
Anyway, that’s what keeps bringing me back to writing about The Magicians. But I’m not a reviewer, and all that stuff you just read was only an introduction. (Yes, this whole thing looks suspiciously like an attempt to force my head up my ass using only the power of the written word). So let’s start digging into the meat. As always, please keep in mind that I’m only going to touch on issues that I think merit further discussion, either because I think they’re inherently interesting, or because I think something was done wrong. Don’t think, even for a minute, that I dislike this show. And please be warned that SPOILERS ABOUND.
Adaptation Versus Re-Interpretation
After the third episode aired, I said that The Magicians was caught at an awkward stage, halfway between a faithful adaptation and a re-imagining. The fourth episode, which took place in an imaginary(ish) asylum, did away with most of this problem. I generally don’t like episodes that call the reality of the show’s world into question, both as a matter of personal taste & because it’s a tired cliche, but The Magicians did it really well. Hell, it would have been worth it for the Taylor Swift sequence alone. But that’s not the point — even a barely-adequate asylum episode would have distinguished the show from the books.
Another standout was the ghost episode. It was completely new, and drew on the books only in the most indirect manner, and it was excellent. I think it’s inarguable that the show is a re-imagining of the books, and not a simple adaptation. And yet quite a lot of the material, even as late as the season finale, comes straight from the books. In fact, those often seem to be weak points (and most of the issues that I’ll discuss below are related to them). The Magicians was a very tightly plotted book. Every aspect of it served a particular purpose, like a Swiss watch. Changing certain elements of it, and taking others out entirely, has a drastic effect on the whole.
Quentin is a fuck-up, OK? He arrives in a situation, assumes that it will make him happy, eventually becomes dissatisfied, fucks things up, and moves on. In the books he did it in high school, Brakebills, New York, Fillory, and New York again before he even started to figure out what he was doing wrong. His most notable fuck-up, of course, happened in Fillory. He misunderstood the situation, called for help, and accidentally summoned The Beast, who proceeded to kill a god and do a variety of other horrible things.
In the show, just the opposite happens (at least so far). Before the final confrontation with The Beast, Quentin realizes that he isn’t the hero, that Alice should be the one who drinks the God-semen (waaaay more on that later) and kills The Beast. What brings him to this incredible revelation? Partly (and this is just my interpretation), it’s because he realizes that he fucked up their relationship, and so he’s predisposed to seeing her in a better light, which allows him to acknowledge that she really is a better, smarter, more skilled magician. Mostly it’s because he knows that this is the 40th time they’ve tried to kill The Beast, and they need to change something if there’s going to be any chance of success.
That’s a pretty significant difference. In the books, Quentin keeps fucking up, but matures a tiny bit each time. In the show, he fucks up two or three times, in ways that aren’t quite as much his fault, and his big moment of personal growth is largely just a practical matter. Of course, you could reasonably say that he had to have matured just to have that revelation in the first place, but it’s a major change to one of, if not the, central themes of the book.
Time Is On My Side
OK, I’m reusing this subtitle, but it’s still appropriate. In the books, Quentin only learns about the watch and time loops after the fact — after The Beast is defeated. In the show, he learns about it beforehand. That’s not necessarily a bad change, but let’s look at what it causes:
- The Dean gets to make a joke about Groundhog Day. That’s pretty cool.
- We have to accept that being magically “powerful” (which I don’t think has been clearly defined) makes it possible to sense that you’ve been through a time loop, and even to remember details about it. I’ve been consistently complaining that magic in this show isn’t powerful enough, so I guess I can’t whine too hard about this, but here’s my beef — all too often, science fiction and fantasy present us with logically incoherent versions of time travel. Time loops, as depicted in the books, are fine, more or less, but throwing magical memory into the mix just makes it that much harder to swallow. I guess this is more an issue of personal taste than anything else.
- Quentin’s personal growth becomes less about maturity, and more about practicality.
- Since The Beast can remember previous loops, he has even more of an advantage in their confrontation. This makes him come across as more threatening (not that he really needed any help).
- Instead of driving home how insignificant Quentin really is, and tempting him with the possibility of getting his friends back before snatching it away, it actually makes Quentin more important. In the books he was just one component of the team that happened to be arranged just right to defeat The Beast. In the show, he’s the “volunteer tomato”, the guy who just keeps cropping up even though he isn’t always invited. That’s not the same as, or even as cool as, being the Chosen One, but it’s still a special status.
- By taking Jane & the watch out of the game, it paradoxically lowers the stakes. We know that things can’t go too poorly for Quentin et al, because there’s no reset button to save them. Even if Jane shows up again, our expectations have still been lowered. It’s not like the first scene in Season 2 will be The Beast killing everyone, followed by an entire season of The Beast just chillin’ in his man-cave (made of out of actual men).
As you can tell, I’m not particularly fond of this change. So let’s talk about something more cheerful.
I loved Cancer Puppy, both as a concept and as it was executed. It was just plain brilliant, not to mention adorable. But I wouldn’t be me (which is to say, an asshole) if I didn’t have a problem with the way the show treats cancer. It’s not just an issue with The Magicians — a lot of fantasy does the same thing. You’ve got people with incredible magic powers who are, for some reason, completely helpless in the face in the face of cancer.
It’s handled pretty well in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series. There, cancer is hard (but not impossible) to cure magically, due to the specific nature of cancer, and the well-defined, long-standing rules of magic in that universe. The Vampire Diaries doesn’t do it quite as well, but they manage OK — vampire blood is a panacea, but it can’t cure cancer because cancer is a mass of living tissue, not a disease or injury. Similarly, turning someone with cancer into a vampire is a bad idea, because even though it cures almost all other medical conditions, vampirism interacts very poorly with cancer. I can’t remember what excuse Buffy The Vampire Slayer used to justify magic being unable to cure cancer, but at least there the magic-user in question was a self-trained novice.
In The Magicians, though, it’s less plausible, and less justified. Here we’re not dealing with a bunch of apprentice warlocks — we’re talking about experts who are using the tools that created the universe. They can fly to the moon, reverse entropy, and bring the dead back to life (in the books, at least, but it would be odd if magic was considerably weaker in the show). Magicians can turn reality inside out, and wring it dry like a wet towel. Existence is their bitch. But cancer, man, cancer’s just a stumper. And the only justification we get is “Some people think cancer might be a curse.”
I understand why this keeps happening. Cancer is the great leveller of our time. It grounds magical characters, renders them helpless, and confronts them with mortality. But it’s getting to be quite the cliche. You know what would be more interesting? Give us a magical world where cancer can be cured with minimal effort. Explore why magicians don’t devote themselves to wiping out cancer, or their secret efforts to cure it without getting caught. Show us what happens to non-magical people who have their cancer cured by magical friends or relatives, and what kind of new stresses that creates for them.
We’re Going On A Quest!
In the books, The Beast shows up once, quite early on, and then again at the end of the first book. In between, he isn’t exactly forgotten, but he isn’t expected to return — he’s looked at as a bad thing that just happened to appear once, but which is probably gone forever.
In the show, The Beast is a recurring enemy, and a constant threat. He drives the entire plot of the first season. It’s obvious why it had to be done this way — the TV show needed a strong story arc, an engaging reason for viewers to keep coming back. In itself, that isn’t necessarily good or bad. It’s just a reality of mass media, and it has the potential to be great, or awful, or anything in-between.
In this particular case, though, I wish they’d been able to stick closer to the original material. The sort of aimless, rambling existence that Quentin lives prior to the end of the book is central to his character, and serves as a sharp contrast to his later life. Hell, in the books the whole reason they go to Fillory is basically “fuck it, it’ll be fun.” Once they arrive, they decide to set out on a quest because…well, that’s what the characters in the Fillory books did.
There is another reason to keep the original material, though. The gang decides to go to Umber’s tomb and become the rulers of Fillory because The Beast is manipulating them — he’s playing on their expectations, which are based on fantasy literature. That ties in very closely to several of the major themes in the books, which are partly an homage to/deconstruction of fantasy, partly an exploration of the act of reading, and partly a warning not to live your life in the hopes that it will just work out the way it does in books.
In the show, none of that comes up. Their quest is forced upon them.
You’ve Got Spunk, Kid
It wasn’t in the books, but I absolutely love that Ember gives them a jar of his semen to drink, in order to bestow his power upon them. Mythologically, it’s utterly appropriate, and the combination of the sacred and the profane takes us into grounds that can only be described with words so pretentious that even I blush to use them.
One little quibble, though — it seems like only Margo has the right reaction to the situation. Everyone else is kind of grossed out, and she’s just disappointed that Alice drank it all. This is the power-giving seed of a God. Most people would literally kill for a taste.
My Knife Is Sharp. I Like To Cut Things With It.
I’m a knife and sword enthusiast (or, more accurately, a really creepy nerd). Normally I’d be all in favour of more shows incorporating sharp and pointy things, but I’m not totally on board with it here.
In the books, The Beast is defeated pretty much entirely because Alice is a really good magician who is also willing to sacrifice herself. It’s a battle of wits and skill between two master magicians. In the show, on the other hand, it seems like the magic knife will play a decisive role. It’s not even a knife made by one of the main characters — they only commissioned it, and for a price that was rather unclear. Side-note : any decent magical lawyer should be able to get Eliot out of that marriage so fast his head would literally spin.
This change takes away at least some agency from the main characters, and it seems likely that it’s a direct result of the way the show plays with time. In the books, the characters had all graduated from Brakebills by the time they confronted The Beast — they had 4 or 5 years of magical education under their belts, including an entire semester at Brakebills South. Even then, they’re barely able to handle The Beast (I think that’s more due to their lack of preparation than anything else, but that’s just my personal interpretation). In the show, they’ve been at school for less than a year, spent maybe a couple weeks at Brakebills South, some of them took time off, and they’ve all probably been skipping class to cope with The Beast. It seems wildly implausible that they’d be able to beat The Beast in a magical duel, hence the introduction of the knife.
Given the situation, using a magical knife to confront The Beast on his own level makes more sense than having everyone suddenly become really good at battle magic. Of course, the whole problem could have been avoided if the show didn’t have them confront The Beast so early, but that seems like an unavoidable reality of TV production — The Beast has to be a looming, imminent threat throughout the story, you can’t easily stretch that out to 3 or 4 seasons, and you can’t cram 2 or 3 in-universe years into a single season of TV. I guess this is probably the best compromise we could expect, but I’m a cranky, unrealistic douchebag, so I’m still not thrilled.
By the way, I realize that the knife comes from the third book, but I don’t think that mitigates the role it plays here.
Well, shit. I had typed up a big paragraph about the relationship between the passage of time on Earth, in the Neitherlands, and in Fillory, and then I realized it was all made redundant by Quentin’s time travel shenanigans at the start of the finale. You win this round, writers of The Magicians!
Neither Here Nor There
OK, there is a really petty, personal complaint, but I want to be honest, so here it is : the Neitherlands don’t look the way I thought they would. I’m not a very visually-oriented person. When a book I’ve read gets turned into a TV show or a movie, I almost never think “Huh, that’s not what I expected him/her/it to look like”, because I don’t have those kind of expectations. Strong “mental images” aren’t really a thing for me. But I have a very clear mental image of the Neitherlands, and it’s nothing like the one in the show. Look, I get it — the show has absolutely no duty to live up to the expectations of fans, much less the expectations of one particular fan. But it still rankles me a little.
Reason & Responsibility
In the books, Quentin sleeps with Janet because they’re both drunk, he’s drifting apart from Alice, and he’s at the self-destruction part of his cycle. In the show, Quentin sleeps with Margo & Eliot because they’re all under the influence of powerful magic that overwhelms them.
If you cheat on your girlfriend because you’re drunk and unhappy, that’s entirely your fault. If you cheat on your girlfriend because you’re being influenced by powerful, unfamiliar magic, it’s not nearly as clear if you’re to blame.
I’m actually not sure how I feel about this change. On one hand, if the show is trying to make Quentin as big a fuck-up as he is in the books, then they’ve made a misstep. On the other hand, if they want Quentin to be more sympathetic, it’s probably a good change.
I will say that Quentin cheating on Alice in the books derives as much from his personality as from the booze, whereas in the show it’s pretty much entirely the magic. Then again, he’s not as self-destructive in the show as he is in the books. I guess it all depends on how the show deals with this in Season 2.
A Rose By Any Other Name
In the books, Eliot’s best friend is named Janet. The show changed her name to Margo because someone was worried that having characters named Janet, Julia, and James would be too confusing for the viewers.
This doesn’t actually reflect on the quality of the show, but it does reek of network interference. James only crops up in a couple of episodes, so the real concern was that people would confuse Janet & Julia, even though they rarely interact with each other, almost never show up in the same locations, and have their own story lines with different supporting characters.
Come to think of it, there’s also Jane, but I don’t think she has ever been mentioned as a reason for the name change. Maybe I’m just getting forgetful in my old age. Of course, if that’s the case, then the name change may well have been a good thing.
This is a show about smart people, for smart people, and created by a smart person (Lev Grossman). The books succeeded despite having “confusing” character names. Hell, a few of the characters even had the same last name. On the whole, it seems unlikely that this change needed to happen.
According to an interview with Arjun Gupta, Syfy has been very supportive of The Magicians using “adult language”. Instead of making them use “TV safe lines,” they just bleep out part of the offending word. Personally, though, it seems ridiculous that they even do that. What’s the point? The FCC has very limited power over cable channels, so it’s strictly a matter of offending advertisers. Are there really any advertisers who are troubled by the word “fuck”, but are totally OK with a slightly-bleeped “F”-word? F*** you, Standards & Practices.
Goodbye, Everybody, I’ve Got To Go
I’ve been pretty hard on The Magicians, but I still really enjoy it. I predicted in my first article that it would be better than Supergirl, but not as good as the other science fiction/fantasy shows that I watch, but it’s actually better than that. In fact, even though I hate to say it, I think The Magicians is probably better than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Flash or Arrow, and it’s certainly better than Lucifer or Castle (which isn’t an SFF show, but whatever).
That’s one of the reasons I’m so hard on The Magicians — because it has really raised my expectations. (I’m hard on Supergirl, on the other hand, because it’s just really poorly written and making fun of it is easy entertainment). In a sense, it’s a compliment — I think that it’s interesting enough to merit discussion & analysis.
In the end, The Magicians is a great show. I just think it has the potential to be better, especially if it starts to diverge even further from the books.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also be interested in my other work -
Serious Stuff : The Plight of the Millennial, my thoughts on the White Poppy Campaign, a quick biographical sketch of a Canadian hero, thoughts on masculinity in the modern era, and The Sad, Strange Story of the Taliban’s Canadian Hostage.
Pop Culture : On the Moral Status of Vampires, My Harry Potter apologia, an essay about Heinlein’s influence on Harry Potter, my reviews of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Supergirl, The Magicians, and Star Wars : The Force Awakens, another essay about The Magicians, my essay about Star Trek, and my thoughts after reading every Discworld book