Wednesday, December 16, 2015

REVIEW: 'The Magicians' - Quentin & Julia's Worlds Change After Learning that Magic is Real in 'Unauthorized Magic'

Syfy's The Magicians - Episode 1.01 "Unauthorized Magic"

A group of 20-somethings studying magic in New York discover a real-life fantasy world that poses a great threat to humanity.

The Magicians is the third show to premiere on Syfy in as many days. Though technically, this premiere is just a sneak preview. The rest of the season doesn't start until Monday, January 25 where "Unauthorized Magic" will re-air followed by the second episode. It's also very unclear if the use of the Childhood's End miniseries will do an effective job launching and building interest for this show in the ratings. Childhood's End and The Expanse have their pros and cons but neither have done fantastic numbers for the cable network. Much like those two series, The Magicians is also based on a novel. Unlike those two though, it's much more confident of itself in its first episode. Yes, it still has to set up this entire magical world but it's able to do so in a way that builds character and doesn't just let mysterious intrigue drive the narrative. That's impressive and makes it easy to connect to the material very quickly.

Quentin Coldwater is the main protagonist of the series. He's someone who often feels alone and misplaced in the world. The show really isn't subtle about that at all in the beginning. He's the one who stands out in the party. The people who care about him notice him alone in a room filled with people. But he's not actively engaging with anyone. It's crucial in establishing the closeness between Quentin and Julia. They are childhood friends who have stayed connected even though they are now entering adulthood. They are feeling the pressures of the world now. They have to pick a path and commit to it because it will shape the people they will be for years to come. It's a lot of pressure and Quentin would rather retreat to the familiar world of his favorite science fiction book series.

Those books hint of the magical things about to come on the show. It's a bit of a mystery that doesn't make a whole lot of sense right now but will probably in the future. These books have sentimental value to Quentin because they are what made his connection to Julia stronger. They bonded over magic. And now, that's a path that both of them are able to take because they've been chosen to take the entrance exam to Brakebills College. That school has very little to do with the story that Quentin shares from the book. That book holds significance because the show actually depicts the story as Quentin is telling it. And later, Quentin is actually pulled into that world to prove just how special he is as a character. Quentin apparently holds some major significance that the people in power know about. But it's also refreshing that Quentin is largely just stressing about failing out of school because this is the first place he has felt he belonged.

That is a powerful character arc for Quentin because it establishes the importance of this school. It's easy to see why he finds it so appealing. He's willing to leave his old life behind just to take this opportunity. It's not something that Julia can do as well as she is denied admittance but is able to largely avoid the spell that will take these events out of her memory. It's a tad unclear how she's able to do all of that just by hurting herself. And yet, it's a powerful arc because it creates an interesting trajectory for her as well. This show is largely the story of Quentin and Julia. They come together and grow apart. It's a cycle that is compelling and character building because it shows just what they've prioritized in life. Quentin wants to fit in. He medicates just in order to get these depressive thoughts out of his head. Brakebills provides him this special opportunity. But it doesn't change him as a person just because he was accepted. He still is dealing with thoughts and fears of failing. He's still worried that he's constantly hallucinating. His life really is in danger but these emotions are just as important to understanding him as a character for the longevity of the series. It's also compelling to watch as Julie breaks apart after failing the exam. Her whole life changed because of that. And now, she's so desperate to prove that she belongs that she's easily recruited to another magical society without really knowing what it's about. Brakebills is shady as well. So it's a very good thing that the show does enough with these two characters to make both of their journeys interesting to watch in this first episode.

The rest of the characters introduced here aren't as successful. They largely exist to say some expositional piece of dialogue or tease stuff for the future. Alice is crucial because she understands the magical world better than anyone else in the new freshman class. She knows what the symbol that appears on Quentin's hand means. He actually becomes a valuable resource to her. She desperately wants to connect to the spirit world in order to understand what happened to her brother who died while at Brakebills. Instead, nothing happens. The spell was a bust and the students go their separate ways. However, it seems that they did do something and it has some very nefarious plans. It's creepy to watch as the mirror fogs up and a smily face is drawn. It signals dark things about to come. And then, a mysterious creature appears later. He can stop time - a trick Quentin is warned about doing. This creature than kills the teacher of the class as well as the Dean who bursts in to try and stop it before it can do any more harm. The four people who did the spell 12 hours prior are able to see all of this take place. The creature also knows of Quentin which is a very tantalizing final tease for the next episode. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Unauthorized Magic" was written by John McNamara & Sera Gamble and directed by Mike Cahill.
  • Even though I've heard great things about the series of novels the show is based on, I have not read any of them. It's great to approach the material without that knowledge and I'm hoping it can stay that way without people talking so much about the changes made in the TV adaptation and what to except moving forward with the plot. 
  • Elliot, Margo and Penny are all series regulars on the show but none of them were truly all that captivating in this first episode. They all had their initially characteristics and that was about it. Penny is edgy and also hears voices. Meanwhile, Elliot and Margo just explained the college to Quentin.
  • There were a couple of neat special effects throughout this first episode - including Quentin's grand display with the cards, Alice creating a moving object out of metal and Julia using sparks in order to free herself.
  • This is the second show this week to feature an anti-gravity sex scene. If a third show does, it can officially become a trend (though I have no idea what show that might be). 
  • The face of the creature that attacks in the end is very obscured by the vast amount of butterflies. That suggests a big reveal is to come sometime in the future.