Television Review: “The Magicians” Episode 1
As with any film or television adaptation of a book that I love, I watched the pilot of The Magicians with trepidation. After all, so many great stories are mutilated somewhere between the page and the screen, and I really, really didn’t want The Magicians to be one of them. Pleased be warned: This review will contain spoilers, so if you want to watch the show without knowing any plot points at all, STOP reading now!
Based on the 2009 novel of the same name, the show follows Quentin Coldwater after he discovers that he can do magic and is accepted into a prestigious magic university, Brakebills. His good friend Julia Wicker discovers magic is real at the same time as Quentin but is denied entry into Brakebills – but she isn’t giving up that easily.
Jessica’s review (the superfan):
The first things fans should know is that there are definitely noticeable changes evident even in the pilot. Some are small, like the number of Chatwin children, and some seem more drastic, like Quentin being the focus of some as-yet-unknown concern by the Brakebills faculty or Alice being out for revenge against the school because of the death of her brother. The changes are jarring at first (especially because I just reread the book to prepare for watching the pilot), but after watching the first episode, I’m optimistic that these alterations won’t impede the telling of a story I truly love and might even assist it in the transition to television. As much as I may want a line-by-line, stunningly visual version of every book I love to come to television, I have to remind myself that novels and TV are two very different media, and if the changes the writers of The Magicians television show have made are in the service of making the story work better in this medium, I’m for it. We’ll see how the changes play out across the season!
I’m sure that sounds like I’m trying to soften the blow of telling you that the show will be unrecognizable to fans of the book – let me reassure you that’s not true! In many ways, Episode 1 is extremely loyal to the opening of The Magicians – it’s probably that fact that makes the changes more noticeable than they would be otherwise. One change that I welcomed, and that I believe other fans will as well, is the telling of Julia’s story alongside Quentin’s instead of being held in reserve for the second book/a later season of the show.
If there’s one limitation of Grossman’s trilogy, it’s that the story is so closely focused on Quentin that we miss out on what’s going on with the interior lives (and sometimes even the exterior lives) of characters we’ve come to love. A television show can’t work that way, and judging by the stellar ensemble cast Syfy has assembled – Jason Ralph as Quentin, Stella Maeve as Julia, Arjun Gupta as Penny, Hale Appleman as Eliot, Summer Bishil as Margot (Janet in the books), and Olivia Taylor Dudley as Alice – we can expect a lot of great character-building from Syfy’s version. That all begins with Julia, who is my favorite character, and I can’t wait to see where the show takes her.
Some of my fan-friends have complained that everyone looks too pretty to be the characters from the book. After all, Jason Ralph’s Quentin doesn’t look like a pale, lanky boy who’s spent too many hours reading novels, and Hale Appleman as Eliot certainly doesn’t have “a permanent half grimace that reveal[s] a nest of teeth sticking both in and out at improbable angles,” as described by Grossman. But this is television, and I’m not surprised that the casting director decided that people would rather see beautiful people every week than awkward ones (she’s probably right), and after seeing all six members of the cast inhabit these characters, even if only for a few minutes in the pilot, I’m not concerned about their ability to channel the ethos of the characters I love so well, and that’s what’s really important to me.
Kat’s review (novice):
I went into the viewing of this show with more information than someone who has yet to read the novel should probably have. The many friends of mine who have read the series did not keep life spoiler-free – which is fine, since I likely asked for the information at the time – and continues to be fine because my knowledge of what happens in The Magicians trilogy did not in any way alter the lovely experience of watching the pilot episode of the adaptation.
The show has everything that I would want from a Syfy (the network, and the sci-fi genre, as it were) television show: drama, action, fabulous cinematography, killer acting, and obviously, science fiction. The story follows Quentin Coldwater, your average, yet not-so-average, college-aged adult with emotional issues. He doesn’t set out on a journey to fix said issues, aside from checking himself into a mental rehabilitation center, which is where we first meet him. Through a series of magical events, he ends up at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy and is pulled into the entrance exam along with his friend Julia.
Quentin passes the exam and is granted access to Brakebills – but dear friend Julia does not. This is where the story gets very interesting and segmented in the best way possible. As viewers, we are able to watch Quentin’s very academic journey through magic and Julia’s back-alley, seemingly “dark side”-of-magic journey she is thrown into after being accosted in a bathroom. It’s clear that they are headed down very, very different paths and that their journeys are going to be nothing alike – and I am so excited to see the series explore that. As someone who didn’t go to a big college or have that real “university” experience, I can relate a bit to Julia’s wanton desire to be a part of something bigger, yet somehow still ending up in the place that she’s meant to be.
The cast of other characters is truly a charming one. We don’t meet a lot of the characters in Julia’s world just yet (WAIT until you see Episode 2!) because the focus of the pilot is truly on setting up Quentin’s half of the magical journey. He is first greeted at Brakebills by Eliot, a lovingly gay character who plays the part of the guide – much like Janice to Cady – complete with walk-through of the different “types” of magical students, á la the North Shore map of the lunchroom. Eliot’s BFFL is the effervescent Margo… whom we haven’t quite figured out yet. She seems like a party girl on the surface, but there are hints of many wonderful things to come. The jury is still out on her. Quentin’s roommate Penny is probably the most memorable from the episode, to me at least. He is a wonderful counterpart for the lead character and will most definitely challenge him in episodes to come. We have a feeling that they will team up as often as they are at odds.
The last character to mention is Alice, and all I am going to say is that she is going to be a catalyst for many things to come – and I can’t wait.
If you’re a Harry Potter fan and you haven’t read the books, we think you’re going to fall hard for this series, and enjoy it a lot. I think the show will be rewarding for fans of the books as well, but it’s going to take a little getting used to – it helps that the series has Grossman’s full cooperation and often consults him on how the show is going to work. The best thing the Syfy pilot has to offer is that the show runners have done a magnificent job of re-creating the atmosphere and personalities that make the books really come to life, and if they continue to do so, I think I’ll be able to deal with any (well, almost any) plot changes they throw at me. One thing’s for certain – I can’t wait to see more!
The series premieres Monday, January 25, 2016, at 9:00 p.m. ET on Syfy network – immediately followed by Episode 2! Be sure to check it out.