Take your dog-eared copy of Lev Grossman’s arch, explosive novel and toss it into a water square at your closest welters pitch. You won’t want to look back at it now — or you’ll recognize just how far astray Syfy’s televised adaptation has wandered, and just how much work it will take to grind it back to its sexy, explosive, wild, and imaginative source material.
The show’s two-part premiere kicks off with just a small ounce of magic: A sad, gray door blasts open to reveal a tall, powerful-looking man striding with purpose towards a chilly, leaf-strewn street — and out of a forest that sparkles with all the promise of summer. It clearly doesn’t lead to the your neighborhood Chipotle.
This Nattily Dressed Man is on his way to a meeting with Hoity British Lady — seriously, none of these characters get names when they first appear onscreen — as the two sit in what appears to be Madison Square Park. They discuss a plan to “get them ready … especially him” without ever revealing who or what they’re talking about. Convinced that Nattily Dressed Man won’t be able to get “him” ready, Hoity British Lady slips him a Pocket Watch of Last Resort (which pairs well with his three-piece suit, so points for sartorial savvy) and asks if anyone “still has their eye on him.”
Nattily Dressed Man’s answer appears to be a big no, because the man-child who we assume is the subject of their conversation is in … a mental hospital. And not just any mental hospital, but one in Midtown, which is its own hell. While Quentin Coldwater (I’m going to go ahead and spill the sad pup’s name) is sitting there, trying to convince his physician that he’s feeling just fine after his weekend jaunt at the asylum, we get a taste of what led Quentin to check himself in.
The problem is that Quentin is … weird? As a party rages around him, he mopes on a beanbag, explains the obtuse origins of magic tricks to crowds of hotties, longingly gazes at the gaunt butt-cheeks of a Daisy Duke–wearing partygoer, then slips away to his room to read his first-edition copy of Fillory and Further, a Narnia-esque fantasy romp. But he didn’t pick the book up on a lark — a glimpse around his room reveals that Quentin is operating at high levels of geekiness when it comes to Fillory. He’s got the posters and stacks of books, although he’s missing the requisite action figurines. (I must say that it’s completely understandable why Fillory is more alluring than the party. It’s a story about three children who disappear into a grandfather clock that leads to a magical Pinterest board of English ecotourism wonder. That shit is groovy.)
Quentin is also smart. Like, Ivy League smart. When his best friend/crush Julia comes in to shake him out of his doldrums (and lie oddly close to him in bed), we learn that he has a Yale grad-school interview coming up. Cut to Quentin walking down the street with Julia, whose hair looks like an extensions ad you’d find in the creepy back pages of a women’s glossy mag. He barges into the home of the interviewer, who is dead, and man does that seems like a surefire way to be rejected from your higher-ed institution of choice.
But then, a bundle of mysterious things start happening all at once: The clock in the interviewer’s house looks bizarrely like the one in Fillory and Further. An EMT arrives to zip up the dead interviewer — and is Hoity British Lady. She hands Quentin a brown envelope with book six of the Fillory series inside it. (And duh, everybody knows there are only five Fillory books.) Quentin is jazzed, but Julia and her hair extensions have had it. She thinks he needs to gear up for the very real, very challenging adult life of … grad school.
Quentin walks home with Julia, flipping through book six. When she steps into an elevator, he doesn’t; he’s busy chasing after a loose page, which leads him through a shrub and into the summery world of Nattily Dressed Man. Meanwhile, Julia’s elevator lets her off into a spread right out of Architectural Digest. Surprise! They’re both in the same place: Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, which is holding its entrance exam that very day, proctored by Nattily Dressed Man, who also happens to be the school dean.
After they take the exam, Quentin is escorted into a room and ordered to “Do some goddamn magic.” Julia, however, doesn’t pass. She’s told that the magical staff is going to magically wipe her not-magical-enough brain, but Julia thinks quickly, slicing a huge gash down her wrist with a Swiss Army knife of a ring. Nothing like an arterial blood spurt to keep your memory in shape! Back to Quentin, who finally gives us a reason to see some of this goddamn magic. He builds a pretty epic house of cards with his mind, then passes out.
The episode then alternates between Quentin and Julia’s lives, showing how Quentin fits in with his new magic pals while Julia crawls into a dark hole of depression, remembering all too keenly what she’s supposed to forget. (You too are supposed to forget that, about ten minutes ago, Julia launched a Stage Five Hissy Fit at Quentin because he was so into magic.) And that’s when the show goes utterly off the rails.
Brakebills is absolutely NOTHING like the Brakebills of the books — and the school, with its overt homage of the classic prep-school novel, is what made Grossman’s novels sing. All the charming Anglophilia of a potty little school hidden near the Hudson Valley is replaced with a parody of a ’90s movie where the “hippie kids” wear tie-dye and the “bad kids” have more than one earring. The architecture is more I.M. Pei than downwardly mobile aristocracy. (The students even meet in neon-lit coffee shops.) And rather than a cozy couple scores of students, Brakebills looks as crowded as a Ollivander’s Wand Shop the day before the Hogwarts Express leaves.
Seriously, Quentin’s tour of Brakebills is an exact replica of Tai’s tour in Clueless. That may sound fun and campy, but the novels are way too smart for straight stereotypes. The show sails right by all of the knowing little details that Grossman includes to show that The Magicians is not a novel about magicians, it’s about reading about magicians. It’s about the claustrophobic worlds we back ourselves into when we can’t shake fantasy from reality.
But this is only the first episode. I’m willing to wait with fingers crossed.
When Quentin brings his new friends, the affected Sebastian Flyte–wannabe Eliot and coquettish Roller-Rink-Barbie Margo, to a bar for Julia’s birthday party, two things quickly become clear: Quentin’s time at magic camp is turning him into a turd, and Julia is in a very bad place. An alterna-magic school wants to extend an offer to her, and sexual assault is apparently the only admissions method. While in the bar bathroom, Julia’s shirt is (magically!) ripped off and she’s (magically!) tied to a radiator while a man named Peter tells her she’s special and no, silly girl, he doesn’t want to rape her, this is just how he conducts interviews! Later, Julia goes into a warehouse with Peter, because he’s obviously proven himself to be an upstanding dude.
Back at Brakebills, we meet Alice, a.k.a. Rachael Leigh Cook in She’s All That, all repressed desire and secretly big boobs hiding behind oversized glasses. Alice is the smartest in the class, which she proves by turning a marble into an adorable prancing glass horse. She and Quentin form an all-too-likely duo after he dreams about one of the Fillory kids, and wakes up with a weird sigil burned into his hand. The sigil happens to look exactly like one on a book that Alice needs to summon her dead brother’s ghost over from “the other side.” They begin the summoning, then Quentin’s roommate Penny and his hookup, who remains nameless for quite a while and whom I’ll call the Braless Wonder, wander in after Penny hears a message from a voice in his head. Did you keep up with all that? Good, because I’m not sure I did.
The summoning doesn’t appear to do anything, except compel whatever is on the other side to fog up a mirror and leave a hand-drawn happy face on it. Later, while Quentin and the rest of his class are listening to a metallurgy lecture, the entire scene suddenly freezes. Nobody can move. Out of that same mirror emerges The Magician’s best creation so far, “The Beast,” a man whose face is obscured by hundreds of fluttering moths. He promptly strolls around, crushes the teacher’s windpipe with a Jedi mind trick, and then rips out the dean’s eyes. The slow, ambling pace of the Beast as he leans towards Quentin and breathes, “Quentin Coldwater, there you are,” is the final — and best — moment of the first episode.
The second installment, “The Source of Magic,” begins just as Quentin comes to. His scrambled memories reveal that the Braless Wonder tried to fight off the Beast, but failed and took a head wallop. Brave, shy, secret hottie Alice was somehow able to banish him back into the mirror, which Penny then smashed.
As if one dead teacher and an eyeball-less dean isn’t bad enough, another nameless teacher — let’s call her Chignon — warns that anyone found to have summoned the Beast will be expelled. Chignon also slips in the nice little detail that the Beast came from another world, which approximately 2 percent of the class seems to find worthy of a gasp.
For the Brakebills kids, who are certain that they called the Beast, the rest of the episode is a madcap dash to figure out how to stay in school and what the ever-loving hell is going on. If there are other worlds, wonders Quentin, could that mean Fillory is real? He has no evidence, but he runs with it, cajoling Alice to watch a YouTube clip of an old documentary that says exactly what he could have told her in two sentences: The children of Fillory and Further were based off real children, the neighbors of the books’ author, Christopher Plover. And two of those kids, Martin and Jane Chatwin, disappeared just as their characters disappeared in the books.
While Quentin becomes a Fillory truther, a far more intriguing plotline develops in the only Brooklyn waterfront warehouse that hasn’t been turned into lofts, where Julia undergoes a hazing ritual for hedge-witch newbies. She’s locked in an empty meat freezer with another pre-frosh named Marina (played by the stellar Kacey Rohl of The Killing and Hannibal), then told to magic her way out. The escapade involves a corpse, talking to that corpse, then disemboweling that corpse. It’s a much more truly mind-blowing introduction to magic than Quentin’s campus tour. Also, Julia’s extensions don’t get in the way at all.
The big reveal here is that Marina is no newbie — she’s the leader of the hedge witches. (A tatted-up arm reveals she’s beyond a “level 50,” whatever that means.) She thinks Julia’s a bitch, but she also really likes her. Those feelings aren’t as mutually exclusive as TV often makes them out to be, so I appreciated that. Marina also brags about her “connections” at Brakebills, where she later shows up to bag a stolen amulet from the Braless Wonder, her source on the inside. None of this happens in the novel — or if it does, it happens in Grossman’s second book, The Magician King, but I’ll save that rant for another time. Marina’s a bitch. I like her.
As if plucked eyes and carved-up corpses aren’t enough, Quentin is eventually dimed-out by Penny and told he’s getting the ol’ heave ho from Brakebills, a thought that sends him right back into an emo tailspin. After a courtyard fight, an arm mended with Brakebills’s version of Skelegrow, and a pitiful phone call to Julia, Quentin lands back in Chignon’s office. The Hoity British Lady shows up too, this time looking posh. After unnecessarily screwing with Quentin for a few minutes, she tells him she can right his situation. What’s that? Did someone say deus ex machina? Also, she knows about his Chatwin dreams. Hasn’t he yet figured out what they mean? No? Me neither.