From left: Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jason Ralph, Jade Tailor, Arjun Gupta/ Photo by Carole Segal, Syfy

The Magicians is the story of a young man named Quentin Coldwater, a daydream-prone young man who needs to develop a backbone. Or it’s the story of Julia Wicker, an overachieving young woman who develops a dangerous obsession with a school for magic that rejected her. The books, by Lev Grossman, are at least on the surface about Quentin—Julia’s story doesn’t get told until the second book—but the argument has been made (many spoilers ahoy, but: read it here) that the books are about her. The show, naturally, is trying to have it both ways.

The first episode, “Unauthorized Magic,” devotes attention to both of them, though it’s weighted towards Quentin’s story. As with a lot of properties premiering new worlds, it’s balanced unevenly between world building and story building. The clunky foreshadowing of the pilot’s opening scene doesn’t exactly bode well for the series, which will hopefully be a commentary on fantasy tropes, not reverently embracing them. But once it swoops into Quentin’s world, it fares better. “Time To Pretend,” if a slightly dated reference, is still a solid song choice to blend his failing attempts to fit in with other people with scenes of him trying to convince a doctor at a mental health hospital that he’s doing OK.

Who among us hasn’t been trapped at a party with a ranting pop culture obsessive? Who among us hasn’t been that person? If you’re watching this show, you’ve probably been in both positions. Quentin’s eventual explanation to the doctor is a little on the nose (“You have all these notions about what life is, and what it could be, but eventually you have to let all that go”), but it serves to highlight the degree to which he’s let his love for the fantasies of his youth substitute for maturity. Once he actually gets to Brakebills, he’s still the anxious, awkward guy he was before, even if the show doesn’t suggest that he’d be just as much of a nerd there. Watching him settle into life as a student learning about magic could have gone on a little longer, all around. His friends there come across a little two dimensional, and it’s hard to gauge how knowledgeable Quentin is supposed to be about magic. More Alice, please.

Julia, for her part, seems far more suited for any potential heroics. That moment where she quickly and calmly gouges her own arm with a ring while the instructor’s back is turned is almost as unnerving as the assault at the end of the episode from the Beast. It’s a shame the show puts her through that unnecessarily rapey initiation scene at her birthday party. There are ways to force her to prove she can use magic that don’t involve her shirt getting ripped off.

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That Beast scene is both incredibly creepy and incredibly effective. Harry Potter and his friends pointing wands at each other is one thing, but a six fingered hand going through a series of severe, intense movements to strangle a guy from a distance is downright uncanny. If the show can maintain that level of tension even half the time, it’s going to be damn scary.

“The Source Of Magic,” the second episode, is, regrettably, a great deal of place setting. Quentin and Julia run through parallel challenges in their separate worlds. Will Quentin be expelled from school for his participation in the ritual that let the Beast in? Will Julia’s new magical friends let her hang out with them? The answer, obviously, is no and yes, and the lack of dramatic tension in both story arcs lets the air out of the episode a bit. Julia’s assertion that she’s had enough of failing tests lately might be shared with anyone watching. We get it, she’s talented and very determined. Though her willingness to carve some extra flesh out of that dead dude’s chest was certainly, um, gross.

The end of the episode is almost a reset, with everyone safely on their paths again. Julia gets her first tattoo of achievement and Quentin joins the Physical Kids for a barbecue. The only real forward momentum is learning that Quentin’s classmate Kady is working for Julia’s new pals, the hedge witches, for reasons possibly blackmailish, and that the mangled-by-the-Beast Dean is still alive, though in rough shape, and pissed at Eliza, the British lady who helped Quentin find his way to Brakebills, and here amusingly tells him he’s not very remarkable. Turns out you have to learn that lovely lesson post-college even if you go to Brakebills.

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Stray Observations

  • I’ve read the books, but I’m going to do my best to avoid getting too in the weeds about differences between them and the TV show, for the benefit of, well, everyone. That said, the moment when Penny ran in and offered to lend a hand made me laugh.
  • Speaking of Penny, I am on board with new and improved Sexy Penny. Though I’m pretty sure the show didn’t bother to give his girlfriend a name until that scene outside when he threatened to leave.
  • “Magicians can’t have Oreos?” “Diabetics can’t have Oreos.”
  • Good to see “Dev Fleischman” getting to share his expertise on the world of Fillory.
  • For anyone else who was mesmerized by the spell casting, you might like this Buzzfeed behind the scenes look at how they’re doing it.

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