I binge-watched season 1 of The Magicians over the last few days on Netflix. If you ever wanted something of a cross between an adult Harry Potter and the post-modern, self-referential film genre (like Scream) – well, this is definitely for you.
The story centers around Quentin Coldwater, a depressed loner type who is about to graduate college but still has an unhealthy attachment to a series of fantasy novels about children named Jane and Martin Chatwin and their visits to a land called Fillory. That all changes for Quentin when he and his childhood friend Julia discover that magic is real and so is Fillory.
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something feels missing – the show stops just short of being amazing.
For one thing, it feels like they left out things from the books (which I haven’t read) to keep the run time to 13 episodes. As an example, Quentin is invited to attend a graduate school for magic, but his roommate, friends, and love interest don’t spend a lot of time in classes. We also rarely see any other students or professors running around (but that could have been to keep the casting budget under control). They mostly seem to learn and practice magic on their own, and we rarely get to see how it works except for some literal hand-waving. In fact, even though Julia is kicked out of this school, she still learns how to use magic on her own, so the fact that it is set at a school feels incidental, almost beside the point.
As an aside, I think my favorite bit of magic was the spell that allows you to truly bottle up your emotions – you are less like a Vulcan in that state and more like a Buddhist – calm/zen, honest (almost to the point of no filter), but fully in control and capable of performing battle magic. That is, until the 3 hours are up and you uncork your emotions in a hyper-intense frenzy.
Also, there some plot points left danging. One that stuck out for me is how the main character has an undetermined special skill, unlike the rest of his friends. But this early issue is forgotten as quickly as it is brought up, much like his threatened expulsion.
The acting and writing wasn’t as bad as it could have been (the show was airing on SyFy after all). But every once and a while, it would pull off a character development or a plot twist that made me want to see where this was all going, leading up to an incredible cliffhanger moment. I won’t spoil anything (although the show did air Season 2 already, so it has been on for a while). I will just say there is a big emotional payoff on Julia’s long-suffering B-story. And along the way in that final hour or so, we see smaller payoffs on other details including who The Beast is, what was up with Quentin’s dreams, and how or why Jane Chatwin knew who Quentin was. They even managed to sneak in a reference to the fact that they changed a character’s name from the books.
As I said, though, it felt like it was missing something. Maybe referencing a meta-fictional book wasn’t enough (maybe they needed to show more of it, so we felt connected to it). Maybe a couple extra scenes or episodes to set up plot details so we felt like they were earned. Or maybe take a lesson from the Harry Potter critics and not put the fate of the world in the hands of people who only just started to learn magic?
Even with all that said, I did binge-watch the whole season in a matter of days, and even as I write this, I am googling for how to watch Season 2 ahead of its release. If that’s not a sign of an entertaining hour of television per episode, I don’t know what is.
Season 3 of The Magicians will air sometime in 2018 on the SyFy channel.