Monday, January 18, 2016

'The Magicians' Is Pretty -- Dare We Say It? -- Magical

"Unauthorized Magic"
Original Airdate: December 16, 2015

On a Saturday morning, I decided to peruse my cable network's On Demand television selections. This is how I caught up with Orphan Black while I worked from home for an entire week, and I figured that I would not find anything worthwhile and end up watching the same episodes of New Girl that I've watched half a dozen times. But something caught my eye, and I paused long enough to make the decision to hit "play." It was a show I had been hearing whispers about — The Magicians.

This SyFy show is apparently based on a series of books by Lev Grossman (who, by the way, I saw two years ago at LeakyCon when he was on a panel about the importance of young adult literature), and I honestly wasn't expecting to like it. I thought that it would be one of those pilots where I would tune in for about twenty minutes before getting bored and then flipping back to, let's be real, New Girl or like, a Say Yes to the Dress marathon on TLC. In spite of the fact that I've never read anything in The Magicians series, and know very little about the premise of the show or its characters, I have added The Magicians to my must-watch list. It's captivating in a way that isn't cheesy or trite.

And the best part is that it's fresh. I've been saturated (as has our culture, let's be honest) for years with tales of magic and the mayhem and ideas of being "chosen." I'm in the Harry Potter generation, after all — the one who remembers midnight releases of the books, not the films. You would think that after all of this, I would be done with the idea of magic. That it would have — please excuse this way-too-easy pun — lost its magic for me. But the fact that I watched the pilot of The Magicians and still felt that pull toward a magical realm means that the show is doing something right with its characters and plot for now.

I say "for now," because I'm curious to know how the show will sustain itself in the long-term. Again, I'm certain that since the book series is a trilogy, the show will find some way to wrap itself around those and keep the plot progressing. Nevertheless, The Magicians is off to a pretty solid start. And the reason why, for me? The characters.

We're introduced, in the pilot, to an array of characters. Our protagonist is Quentin Coldwater, a young man who is engulfed in the world of magic through his favorite book series, Fillory and Further. We meet him in the pilot as this socially awkward, lost graduate student. When Quentin is recruited to join the magical Brakebills College and train to become a Magician, he finally feels at home in the world. It's really intriguing to see him transition from someone so hopeless and wandering to a young man who is still nervous and questioning, but who feels more apt to become a hero than before.

I like Quentin. I think that he's an intriguing character because I don't think at this point in the series that he believes he can be a hero. I think it's taken a lot for him to even believe that he could be special. He's spent so much of his life being shoehorned into the ordinary, that it will take him some time to settle into this identity that has been dormant for so long. (Also worth mentioning is the fact that Quentin is not someone who will take risks, but not because he's pragmatic — because he's nervous and would rather maintain a status quo than shake anything up.)

As much as Quentin intrigues me, the women of The Magicians are the ones I truly connected with. There are three female characters in the pilot who get significant screentime — Julia (or "Jules" as she's called and how I will refer to her), Alice, and Margo — and all of them are really distinct and great. None of them are archetypal characters and I really love that. The complexities of female characters are so often neglected in film and television that whenever I witness them in a show (however absurd this may sound), I have to pause to celebrate them.

I absolutely love Alice Quinn already. She's a combination, as I tweeted while watching the pilot, of Hermione Granger and Felicity Smoak — whip-smart, underestimated, bookish, and extremely talented, Alice is the girl who is a loner because her intelligence and drive isolate her from others. She comes from a prominent family of Magicians, and has a sort of stigma around her because of that. But like Felicity Smoak, Alice may be blonde and appear easy to define, but she has darkness in her life that she only lets Quentin see a glimpse of in the pilot episode.

Alice may appear shy, and in a lot of ways I suppose she is, but the thing that makes her such an astounding character in the pilot is that she is the one who knows more than Quentin does. And though she is hesitant to help him at first, when she agrees, she's all in, barking orders at him and standing up for herself in a way that would make Hermione Granger beam. It's easy for me to compare Alice to these two women since they are such important female characters to me and so many others, but Alice is not a carbon copy of either, nor is she a strict combination of both.

She doesn't really have Felicity's personality — her draw to attract others. Instead, Alice welcomes isolation. She feels uncomfortable around other people, especially those she doesn't know. And it's clear that she's harboring things much darker than Felicity or even Hermione experienced. The thing about Alice is that she already is the kind of person who is smart enough to be a leader, as long as she lets other people in first.

(Margo isn't extremely prominent in the pilot, so I really don't have much to say about her. She is an endearing, funny, loud character though and I already adore her. You'll notice a pattern that all of these women are leaders and tell the men what to do in the pilot, And it's amazing.)

I love Alice but I am so compelled by Jules in The Magicians and cannot wait to see where her story progresses. Jules is the childhood best friend of Quentin and the two rely on each other immensely. Jules is always there for support and advice and they're closer than any family Quentin has. Julia is a perfectionist — her life is orderly and she excels at everything she does. When she and Quentin were younger, they practiced magic but while she grew out of that "phase" of her life, Quentin never did.

But then, Quentin and Jules are whisked away to an entrance examination for Brakebills College, where Quentin passes and Jules does not. As a consequence, she has her memory wiped by the school. And yet before that happens, Jules does something incredibly smart — she cuts a large gash in her arm on purpose. And when she awakes in her apartment the next morning with her boyfriend, she looks down at her arm.


This is incredible to me, because it means that she has an inner strength that goes beyond what magic can do. Jules is immensely strong and immensely stubborn and she refuses to forget the world she was forced to give up. She doesn't want to live a normal existence now that she knows that magic is real. And I can't blame her. But what's so striking is that when she sinks into a depression after Quentin leaves for Brakebills and she cannot, he returns and tells her that she needs to let the idea of magic go. She needs to move on and accept the fact that she cannot be the best at everything. Some things she cannot do or achieve and it's okay.

You see, Jules is a perfectionist and that is her flaw. I love this. I love that perfectionism is so often played as a strength (and it is), but in this show, it's depicted as a weakness — as an obsession. Jules is so consumed with being the best at everything that she forsakes her reality in favor of pursuing another. We're so accustomed to seeing characters celebrated for their drive and ambition, like Hermiones and Felicitys and Annie Edisons. These are women whose type-A tendencies are seen as character strengths. It's only once you peel back the strength that the duality of it is revealed: everyone's greatest asset is also their greatest liability.

Jules' perfectionism and her ambition to be the best at everything causes her to seek out magic elsewhere. She, at the end of the pilot, meets a man who tells her about a secret society for magical abilities. (To which I tweeted: "Secret societies are never good, Jules!") I can't wait to see how Jules progresses as a character now that she has the chance to explore magic in a very different way than she would have at Brakebills. I think that she is already compelling and I would love to see how this drive and determination unravels her further.

The Magicians is off to a solid start. Though the show's pilot begins a bit slow (it takes a while for it to build toward plot-progressing importance — the real-world stuff at the beginning is a bit dull and once the characters show up at Brakebills, the show seems to move a LOT better), it definitely has promise to become something pretty special and captivating.

(Just be glad I didn't use another magic pun.)

Check out the premiere of The Magicians, currently available to watch for free on the SyFy site. The pilot episode will officially debut on TV on Monday, January 25 at 9|8c.


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