'The Magicians' casts a potent spell

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

"Harry Potter" meets "Gossip Girl" in "The Magicians," Syfy's new adaptation of a Lev Grossman trilogy, and it's a good match. Following a New York college senior transported to a grad school for magic, "The Magicians" doesn't just tell another story of a fantastic dimension existing outside the modern world, it explores the siren call of the tales themselves.

Also the dangers of admissions testing.

Though nearing college graduation, Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) has not found his place in this world, preferring to disappear into a series of "Narnia"-like children's books, "Fillory and Further." Once a shared passion with best friend Julia (Stella Maeve), Quentin's "Fillory and Further" addiction now only exacerbates his feeling of isolation (for purposes of this story there is no online superfan group). Accompanying him to a grad school interview, Julia lectures Quentin on preparing for "real life," which, as each quickly learns, includes real magic.

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After a shared incident at the interview site, they are transported separately to Brakebills University, where they take an entrance exam for a magician's graduate school. Quentin gets in, Julia does not, which immediately flips their psychologies — Quentin has finally found the place he belongs while Julia must return to the now very much less interesting real world (an attempt to wipe her memory of Brakebills doesn't take.)

Combining the narratives of the trilogy's first two book, "The Magicians" follows their very different but parallel journeys. As the pilot's opening scene makes clear, trouble is brewing of a He Who Must Not Be Named variety, trouble for which Quentin and his classmates must face even if they seem woefully unprepared.

Brakebills, like Hogwarts or for that matter Harvard of "The Paper Chase," is filled with all sorts of characters, politics and personal intrigue. Though taken under the wing of Eliot (Hale Appleman), Quentin remains almost unsure of himself here as on the outside. Until, that is, a series of dreams in which the world of "Fillory and Further" appears to be real lead the still stumbling Quentin to a relationship with Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), the school's most promising magician.

The relatively quick appearance of the story's monster, tantalizing executed, leaves little time for Quentin, and viewers, to explore the Brakebills universe, but it also trims some of the unabashed Rowling rip-off/homage.

Julia, meanwhile, all but broken by her rejection, is offered entrance into the magical world through a side door, which may or may not be overseen by the forces Quentin and his group will obviously soon be fighting.

Television is filled with all manner of magical lands and extra dimensions, but "The Magicians" holds its own by making the students a bit older and complicated — no hissing Malfoys arise, at least not in the two episodes made available.

More remarkable, as adapted by Sera Gamble and John McNamara ("Trumbo"), "The Magicians" goes the extra distance by contemplating the tears shed over answered prayers. Fantasy may or may not be best left to the imagination. As Quentin soon finds, one's troubles are quite portable, even on magical journeys.

Twitter: @marymacTV


'The Magicians'

Where: Syfy

When: 9 and 10:10 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under age 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 25, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Spellbinding `Magicians' - A grad school for the magic-minded may be the perfect spot for Quentin. Or not. - TELEVISION REVIEW" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe