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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Magicians Review: A Puff of Smoke.

Why aren't you smiling?

We're about 3 quarters of the way through the first season and the fact I've kept with it should tell you enough. I've seen tons of shows I've never felt strongly enough to write about and I've managed to sit through 9 episodes of the best new show on Sci-Fi in... Christ, almost 12 years. But don't let that impression fool you into thinking this is on the same level as the golden years of BSG. A gritty and grounded reboot of Battle Star Galactica?! How could that not be a hunk of hot garbage? Yet that show stormed out of the gate with a fire in it's belly ready to make the critical community eat every ounce of their antipathy. The Magicians... does not.

It feels like the work of talented artists that have just never done something like this before. Muddled plot lines, confused character arcs, and a central magical school the show is so disinterested in telling stories about they might as well have just cut it. Nearly nothing, nearly nothing, of interest or import has happened at Brakebills. It's a backdrop the central scooby gang uses to investigate the season long mystery and hardly anything else. In fact, the most involved magical study in the season thus far took place at an entirely different institution. I've never read the books the show is based on, but could you imagine Harry Potter if Rowling loathed writing about Hogwarts? It's really off putting.

Magic Sex! (...on basic cable)

But once you're done sifting through stilted set ups and occasionally plodding dialogue, there's plenty to look forward to. The main character, a grad student who is almost certainly on the autism spectrum somewhere, is played wonderfully by Jason Ralph. It's damn brave to have a protagonist this broken and hard to watch. You've never seen anything like it unless you're a community fan. And in that case, you've never seen Abed taken this seriously.

The female lead played by Stella "Holy sh*t where did she come from?!" Maeve is just as refreshing. Her arc as Julia is separate from Quentin. She has to make do with a magic school on the wrong side of the tracks. Which again, is so much more interesting than Brakebills it's embarrassing. She also has her fair share of baggage and she makes some pretty cutthroat decisions to stay in the magic game. Her story is always a welcome vacation from Quentin and the gang's hand wringing over Fillory.

Now what's Fillory? Narnia, pretty much. It's the real reason you're tuning in and I'm fairly certain it's the real reason the books were written. You couldn't exactly hang your hat on something that sits so closely to the beloved series. So the story pretends it's really about Quentin's adventures at Brakebills. The way Fillory becomes a stand in for any children's fantasy series is brilliant because it harnesses your own nostalgia to say some pretty impactful stuff about arrested development in adulthood.

The long, winding, and over saturated road leading up to the show's tragic villain is totally worth it. Sh*t gets real in Fillory, guys. But it takes far too long for the main thrust of the story to reveal itself. Someone should seriously edit the show down to 8 great episodes instead of 13 mildly disappointing ones. But that's not up to me.

I haven't talked much about the other students at Brakebills because this is where I start saying nasty things about good actors. I hate this part, but here we go:

Left to right: Julia, Margo, Elliot, Quentin, Alice, Penny.

Penny, the proto-bully, vacillates wildly from unprovoked jerkwad to Quentin's confidant buddy at least once an episode. Arjan Gupta does the absolute best he can with his disaster of a character and even shows real comedy chops when the script lets him. He's forced to call Quentin a nerd several times and you can hear how much Arjan hates those lines.

Alice Quinn, Hermione clone #47-D, has yet to surprise me at all. Olivia Dudley has a relaxing screen presence and a shockingly wide variety of pained facial expressions. But that's about the only thing her character is allowed to do. I can't remember the last time I felt so sorry for an actor handcuffed to a stereotype. Oh right, and she ends up being Q's love interest. Again, the actors are responsible for selling it as the script just sort of snaps it's fingers and makes them love each other. It's the kind of creative decision that wears you down instead of winning you over.

Which brings me to Elliot and Margo. An eurudite/pan-sexual/goddamn hilarious couple who are the real supporting cast heroes. They play into your expectations for the privileged villains who get what's coming to them; but you end up falling in love with their fabulous bacchanalian lifestyle. Elliot even gets a little serious acting opportunity towards the tail end of the 9 episodes I've seen.

So... yeah. I'm real split on this show. It has a good story worth telling, but it was a draft or 2 away from being truly exceptional. The vast majority of the cast is terrific. Kudos to you, The Magicians, for not stuffing the roles with marginally talented underwear models. There are shows out there in your demo who do not share your restraint. And while there's a f**king great villain to be found if you stick it out, there's really no excuse for it's amateurish rising action. If you tuned out, never to return, after the 3rd episode's howler of a finale... I completely understand.

If you can make it past episode 5, you'll probably become a fan. Me? I admire it from afar. I respect the things it does well but the mounting number of rookie mistakes leave me cold. Will it be one of those shows that kills it in season 2 and never looks back? I certainly have my fingers crossed.

For what it's worth, episode 9 is a showstopper.

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