Graduate Level Magic Takes A Dark Turn In Syfy’s ‘The Magicians’

Let’s get this out of the way: Syfy’s “The Magicians” is not “‘Harry Potter’ for adults.”

To describe it as such — whether dismissively or approvingly — downplays the unique thrills of both stories. “The Magicians,” based on the bestselling novel by TIME journalist Lev Grossman, is certainly a product of the burgeoning cultural appetite for mature fantasy dramas (ever heard of a little adaptation called “Game of Thrones”?), but it would do well to break free of the burdens of precedent and strike out on its own. If the first episode (“Unauthorized Magic”) is of any indication, “The Magicians” seems to be doing just that. But it’s still difficult to pin down the exact tone of the series.

The show embraces its influences while simultaneously subverting them. The premiere episode opens with an urgent, semi-hushed conversation between two middle-aged characters on an unremarkable New York City park bench, where phrases like “It’s happening” and “They know nothing…especially him” are uttered with significant flourish. The “him” in question is our sullen, disillusioned protagonist, Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), whose continued affection for a Narnia-like fantasy series called “Fillory and Further” has earned him scorn and pity from his best friend, Julia (Stella Maeve), who has since moved on from all that “fun, silly, nerdy bullshit.”

But Julia is soon eating her words as the duo discovers that not only is magic real, but it is definitely not fun, silly, nerdy, or bullshit.

Quentin and Julia are both summoned to take part in a magical aptitude test to determine their admittance to Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy, and while Quentin passes with flying colors (or cards, as it were), Julia fails, has her memory (ostensibly) wiped, and is sent back to her cozy, sheltered life. Quentin, meanwhile, forgoes his plans to matriculate at Yale with Julia and eagerly enrolls at Brakebills, where he is given the grand tour by two smug, upperclass students, Eliot (Hale Appleman) and Margot (Summer Bishil).

Eliot and Margot walk Quentin across the campus lawn, where helpful clusters of students demonstrate the different Disciplines assigned to students after their first year of study, depending on their particular magical strengths. Quentin is marveling at the supernatural displays when two students slink by, looking decidedly downcast. Eliot and Margot exchange knowing glances; Eliot explains that only four of the original 20-student third-year class remain, and no one quite knows why. Mysterious! Something is afoot.

But before the tension can build, Eliot brushes it aside with some well-timed snark. “We all signed this waiver?” he drawls. “Hope you read yours. It says, ‘Spellwork is not unlikely to murder you, and if so…oh well.’”

This kind of dark humor feels right at home in a story of magical realism, a genre that “The Magicians” occupies much more comfortably than fantasy. The classes sampled in the first episode exhibit this concept most of all, as a typically eccentric, grey-haired professor drones on about alloys and quantum mechanics as it relates to spellwork, demonstrating what, in all likelihood, a real magic lesson would actually be like.

“The Magicians” is delightfully self-aware. As Quentin adjusts to his new reality, he gives voice to audience concerns, which are, by way of their expression, being satirized by the show itself. “I don’t want to be that guy who dies in the first ten minutes of the movie,” Quentin says nervously when a fellow student, Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), implicates him in a plan to steal a dangerous book from the Dean and summon a figure from the dead. And in one of the episodes truly funny moments, Quentin jumps to a conclusion about magicians and Oreos when the Dean reveals how a fellow magical educator perished.

The characters, too, have a lot of potential. The supporting cast — the edgy, brash Penny (Arjun Gupta) and Kady (Jade Tailor), the blasé Eliot and Margot, even the doe-eyed, sadly misunderstood Quentin, always toting a cup of coffee to underscore his “everyday Joe” personality — feel familiar, but not cloyingly so. Julia is the most fascinating of them all: she becomes slightly manic after failing her Brakebills entrance exam, and when Quentin condescendingly dismisses her as well (my, how the tables have turned), she pursues other, even more perilous methods of learning and practicing magic.

With this dark desperation, the show wades into deeper, murkier waters, as Quentin is revealed (in his very first scene) to be clinically depressed and hopelessly, existentially lost. He is finally prepared to dispose of his precious “Fillory and Further” books and enter the mundane cesspool of real adult life when he stumbles upon Brakebills for his entry exam. The school of magic appears as a convenient form of wish fulfillment, one that even Quentin is at first skeptical to accept. Yet, true to the narrative form, he has finally found somewhere he belongs. He hands over his medication to the Brakebills Dean because, according to the Dean, Quentin hasn’t been depressed, he’s just been lonely.

This scene still rubs me the wrong way. If “The Magicians” is trying to be so gritty (to use a pop culture buzzword) and so real, implying that there is quite literally a magical cure for depression undermines its unflinching groundedness. Even so, it turns out that the magic of Brakebills is not all sunshine and roses, as Quentin begins to have dreams about upcoming death and destruction, featuring one of the main characters from his all-too-real “Fillory” books. So, Quentin is rescued from the brink of cynicism with — more cynicism?

These contradictions are not inherently bad. Brakebills magic is not quintessentially magical, in terms of the word’s conventionally pleasant connotations — in fact, one could argue that all magic is dark magic, given its treacherous potential. As a certain Harry Potter villain once said, “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” The magic of “The Magicians” is scary and unpredictable, and that’s what makes it so exciting.