Take it from the network that rebranded as Syfy: The best trick in The Magicians is its phoniness. The actors share a broad house-style stiltedness and uniform, plasticine good looks — even the same haircut. The sets, costumes and special effects, while often inventive (a baddie with a head made of moths!), give off a faint cheeseball whiff. The whole production gleams like polyester silk.
Yet the show can pull this off, because its story is about playing pretend while trying to find something true. The plot follows Quentin (Jason Ralph), a long-haired, anxious geek who, during an interview for a Ph.D. program, stumbles into a wizarding school called Brakebills. When it turns out that, as at any other university, the students angle for internships and graduates end up as podiatrists, Quentin finds a portal to the realm of his favorite childhood novels, Fillory, where he and his friends are crowned as royalty and set out to defeat a sadistic being called the Beast.
Lev Grossman’s Magicians book series cleverly crossed the campus novel, in which overachievers in arrested development struggle to realize their authentic selves, with low fantasy, which promises that if you punch past the dull and heavy scrim of daily life, you might reach a wilder, more wondrous experience. The show, too, uses this hybrid premise to explore earthly emotional states — yearning, depression and, above all, the urge to impose the clear logic of plot onto life’s mess: “I didn’t know much, but I knew that I was the hero of this story,” Quentin confides at the end of the first season. If the acting seems a little affected, this fits characters who are uncomfortable in their own skin and constantly striving to advance their powers; if the production design has a cheap CGI dazzle, this heightens the many levels of unreality. Whether it’s flying books or talking animals, each successive world the students enter has a sugary, eye-popping novelty. But the high wears off fast, and the illusion feels only a breath away from being dispelled — or debunked.
Grossman’s meta-fantasy felt a little more arch than Syfy's. The show ages up the characters from college kids to 20-somethings, but its sensibility is more teenage: capable of self-mockery but also a little awkward, its message mumbly and earnest. “Magic doesn’t come from talent,” says Quentin’s louche upperclassman friend, Eliot (Hale Appleman). “It comes from pain.” To that end, the adaptation gives all the young sorcerers some inner wound to nurse. Quentin was hospitalized for mental health problems; his friends have dead siblings, addiction issues and manslaughter in their pasts, and plenty of mommy issues to go around. Throughout this agonizing about how they got their gifts, they fumble toward the question of what they might be for.
In its first season, the show meandered through this rich material, and its self-contained episodes often wound up in unexpected places. One second the gang’s at a croquet match, and the next at a haunted house, finding kitschy scares and sickening revelations of child abuse. Sick of school? They’re in Antarctica, or flying off to a swingers’ bacchanal in the Chicago suburbs, or stuck in a psychiatric ward (that’s actually all in Quentin’s head). The overarching plot could be head-scratchingly difficult to piece together; if these incidents were shuffled into a different order, the experience of the series would stay roughly the same. Yet this unpredictability was also disarming. Careeningly uneven, The Magicians could suddenly shift gears from silly to spooky to sad.
At the start of the second season, that endearing, cheerful chaos sputters, then stalls. Last year’s finale left off in the middle of a climactic battle, the heroes lying in their own blood. What happens next is so scattered that no one could spoil it. Characters constantly flicker between worlds or get forcibly yanked from the scene by a higher power. One is abandoned to a sadistic demigod; another wakes up alone in the hospital. Former friends work at cross-purposes. Even a romance scene between Quentin and his sexy-schoolgirl ex-girlfriend Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), taking place at close quarters, feels disjointed. There aren’t reaction shots, and the two share the screen for only a moment; their heart-to-heart feels like a series of stiff monologues. This framing — perhaps unintentionally — captures their isolation. No one can get on the same page.
A few episodes in, though, the dust settles enough for new plots to emerge, and for the characters to come into sharper focus. No longer preoccupied with schoolyard conflicts, they find their inner journeys at last leading outward. Two characters try to recover from deep physical trauma: relearning sorcery from scratch after being maimed, or seeking to banish a murderous rapist (and enduring almost Gothic degrees of additional horror). Meanwhile, the new monarchs debate how to govern the dying, Narnia-like kingdom of Fillory, which seems less cutesy each day, its citizens restive. (As the dean of Brakebills puts it, “Your thesis project is: how to save an entire goddamn world.”)
Even seemingly disposable background players turn out to have a cause they fight for. But as Eliot eye-rolled last season, “This isn’t Middle-earth. There aren’t enough quests to go around.” Hollowed out from lost love, Quentin just wishes he could rewrite his story from the beginning. “Everything I ever wanted, I got,” he tells one of Fillory’s mystical wish-granting creatures, his shoulders slumped.
It’s in these moments that The Magicians seems like the likeliest successor to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, especially its painful, unfairly maligned late seasons. As that series wound to its close, with the beloved gang growing up, breaking up, bruised and basically unable to leave their old haunts, it pushed its thematic logic to the breaking point. Where Buffy asked what happens after heroism, The Magicians probes the limits of escapism.
Or of fantasy itself. Pitching his bow and quiver into a Manhattan trash can, Quentin seems ready to quit for good. He retreats to the mundane, takes a desk job in a high-rise. (He’ll be back, of course.) Still, everyone must put away childish things: the idea that suffering can be salved by power, or that trauma can become an item you equip to defeat the boss. That awful events can be assimilated into, and thus redeemed by, narrative. That there’s always an elsewhere to underwrite their existence.