The Magicians: Unauthorized Magic   Books Included 
January 25, 2016 6:48 PM - Season 1, Episode 1 - Subscribe

A smart, geeky and socially awkward young man - Quentin Coldwater - is amazed to realize that the magic he's so passionate about is actually real, when he's unexpectedly invited to attend a college of magic in upstate New York. His friend Julia is invited as well ...

This episode is streaming on The college is Brakebills, a kind of magical graduate program.

FORBES: Syfy's Gritty New Fantasy 'The Magicians' Is Magical And Terrifying which POLYGON draws you in with setting, not characters as COLLIDER: The Magicians Casts A Spell. Think of it as SALON: “Harry Potter” and the quarter-life crisis
The smartest thing Syfy’s “The Magicians” does, right from the start, is putting protagonist Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) in a psych ward. That’s not canonical—it’s not part of the character’s backstory in Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians,” which was eventually followed by two more books to complete a trilogy. In the books, Quentin is an amateur card-trick player who discovers magic, like the magic in his beloved childhood fantasy books, is real; but unlike the “Harry Potter” series, which uses a similar template, Quentin’s experience with Brakebills University is not quite so whimsical and heroic. That’s because Quentin isn’t your average protagonist. The term “anti-hero” isn’t quite right. It’s not that Quentin is struggling with being a bad guy; it’s that Quentin is struggling with being an annoying, self-absorbed dickhead. “The Magicians” presents itself, at first, as a story about a magical university and an evil villain. But what it really is, in Grossman’s hands, is a story about the personal journey of one nerdy, disaffected man who invested a lot into worlds that aren’t our own—and how being talented and imaginative can create for a specific kind of longing unhappiness that preys on the soul.
THE GOOD: Jason Ralph is just perfect as annoying self-absorbed and dissatisfied Quentin! And we're going to get Julia's adventures in parallel, not flashback.
THE BAD: The Beast is actively looking for Q? And Q is some kind of specifically known person that other people are concerned with? Did you even read the books?
THE UGLY: not Eliot, that's for sure! Fillory is much more entwined with the magical world, or at least with Q. Let's see where this is going.
And for those of you reading along at home: A Brief Guide to the Hidden Allusions in The Magicians
posted by the man of twists and turns (31 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I hardly remember the books and don't have the investment that other people have in them, good or bad, and so I found this to be much better than I expected it to be. I pretty much felt that all the pieces were solid and worked well together. And the ending -- that was extremely well-done and terrifying.

The one thing I didn't like is that fucking American television casts every goddamn part with conventionally beautiful people.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:53 PM on January 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

The first episode definitely had TV pilot syndrome. But I bet once they have more space to spread out the story it will improve. It sounds like the writers and showrunners get the point of the books. And the executives at SyFy basically know that meddling wouldn't do any good.

Quentin wasn't the chosen one in the books like a hero's journey, but he was picked out as a useful pawn from the beginning, known to Jane Chatwin at least. And in both versions he bears some responsibility for letting the Beast in.

I'm a little frustrated that the pilot didn't emphasize what a miserable grind magic is. I'm not really feeling the special effects and excitement. They basically made it seem like Potter magic where you just learn some funny foreign words and clap your hands together. I want to see people contorting their hands and sweating over boring textbooks just to get a marble to roll around.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:20 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm looking forward to more Brakebills fleshing out. Three years (?) and what, 20 students in each class?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:28 PM on January 25, 2016

Wow this kind of felt like they skipped some pretty important stuff. Like the actual learning magic parts. I guess they wanted to get a good cliffhanger by the end of the episode, but it felt to me like they've been in school all of a week and no one knows a thing save Alice. I guess they figure viewers will just fill in the "boring" shit from watching Harry Potter? We get the lines from Quentin about how he's freaked out about dropping out, which suggests that they have done at least something in school, but it still feels to me like they all just got here.

Also, sexual assault as underground magician recruitment tool? Come on.
posted by ODiV at 8:37 PM on January 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

"Also, sexual assault as underground magician recruitment tool? Come on."

100% agreement on that. I was decidedly vocal during that commercial break about just how messed up that was.
posted by komara at 8:44 PM on January 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Also, sexual assault as underground magician recruitment tool? Come on.

As a huge fan of the books, I decided I'd check out this thread before watching, and this very much makes me not want to check it out. Could someone give me a quick summary of what this refers to?
posted by skycrashesdown at 9:12 PM on January 25, 2016

The best thing about The Magicians was the complete takedown of Quidditch. What garbage Quidditch is.
posted by Justinian at 9:28 PM on January 25, 2016

Not liking the aging up of the characters (I feel it detracts quite a bit from the feel of the book). Not liking how good-looking they made Penny. Very much not liking blonde Alice. Disappointed that they seem to be skipping the Free Trader Beowulf story entirely (I realize that they were probably nervous about legal issues surrounding the FTB name, but they could have changed the name and kept the story).

On the other hand, Quentin's face is exactly as punchable as I imagined it being, so they nailed that one.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 9:52 PM on January 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

They had to age up the characters. You can't show sexual content with children.
posted by Justinian at 9:57 PM on January 25, 2016

Not liking how good-looking they made Penny

Penny or Eliot?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:12 PM on January 25, 2016

I'm a little frustrated that the pilot didn't emphasize what a miserable grind magic is.

YES. To my mind one of the best things about the books is that magic is such a fucking pain and it takes ages and ages of sweat and tears to get it to do anything at all, and that whole time all the students are feeling like crap and like they're going to get kicked out of school. I get that that doesn't translate well to television and I. Don't. Care. If they didn't want to make student magic deeply unimpressive for the first few episodes at least, they shouldn't have adapted these books.
posted by town of cats at 10:41 PM on January 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

They had to age up the characters. You can't show sexual content with children.

Even if I agreed with that premise (I don't), I believe that characters in the books were of legal age by the time any sex happens.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 10:41 PM on January 25, 2016

1. I'm always suspicious of shows that exclusively cast gorgeous people. This is doubly so when I think of my Magicians reading. I think of these people as, to various degrees, kinda nerdy/gothy/outcasty/awkward, and my vision of their appearance merged with that (like, not unattractive, but not The Beautiful People either, you know?), so there's cognitive dissonance right now. That said, I get the sense that these actors know what they're doing, and they're convincing enough in the roles. I can already feel myself getting over it.

2. It's going to take some time to wrap my head around this being grad school, not college. A great deal of the coming-of-age stuff in the books makes sense when you consider this being a college experience. Not quite the same when they're post-college. I'm not sure how that will be navigated.

3. I get the sense that mental illness will factor in and be explored heavily. The books certainly dealt with this, but if the show is going here in a very upfront way, I'm intrigued. This could be what they need to deal with "grad school" narrative arcs - coming to grips with a lot of stuff you can't afford to NOT deal with anymore. Whether that's depression, social anxiety, imposter syndrome, or any of a number of psychological things. Ripe and much-needed in the TV landscape. If this is where it's going, there might be a lot to think about in coming episodes.

4. They need to slooooow dooooown. Take some time to establish the setting. Brakebills is an important setting! It's practically a main character in itself. Don't half-ass it. Same with the lore - the system of magic fits really well with what it's like to be in a grad school kind of setting. Dry, academic, difficult, with interlocking mechanisms that require "systems thinking" and balancing, etc. I did like the bit of class we got at the end.

5. The overlapping backstory of Julia is welcome. Nice touch. The sexual assault as prelude to underground magic - ugh. But you know what, it's in keeping with the books and themes, isn't it? Julia is about to go through some gross, horrifying stuff. The back channels of magic in this universe are not nice places to spend your time in. She didn't find her people until she met up with Free Trader Beowulf. And that took a while.
posted by naju at 1:13 AM on January 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

I agree about slowing down, naju. That's my only real complaint so far. The Expanse somehow avoided the feeling that they were racing through the source material without the necessary establishing of the setting so it's clearly possible. Still, I liked this episode. And I really liked episode 2 but I will save comments for that thread. (EXCEPT ABIGAIL HOBBS FROM HANNIBAL IS IN IT.)
posted by Justinian at 2:14 AM on January 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

They had to age up the characters. You can't show sexual content with children.

They aren't children in the book - they're 18ish, about to head to university.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:44 AM on January 26, 2016

skycrashesdown: "this very much makes me not want to check it out. Could someone give me a quick summary of what this refers to?"

Since you asked: They're at a bar. Quentin has just confirmed to Julia that he made it into some magical school that she half-remembers. Quentin leaves. Julia goes into the bathroom. A button pops off her shirt and goes down the sink drain. Then another button pops, then all of them. Her shirt flies up over her head, revealing her bra, and

I swear as I'm typing this out it sounds ridiculous but no, this really happened

her shirt flies up over her head and binds her hands, and she's thrown by unseen forces back across the room and comes to rest on the floor with her back to a radiator. Her shirt, which is still binding her hands with her arms over her head, attaches itself to the radiator.

There she sits on the dirty floor of a bathroom, arms over her head, tied up, half-naked. A guy walks in - a guy Julia saw at the bar earlier - and says something I've forgotten. Julia gets mad and uses her very limited knowledge of magic (plus anger) to break her restraints. The guy's like, "oh hey no i'm totally not some rapist sex weirdo i was just proving to you and myself that you have powers etc. do you want to learn more?" and Julia's like, "okay."

So ... yeah. Really shitty unnecessary and exploitative scene. If anyone wishes to make corrections to my recounting of the thing I'm happy to accept them, because when watching it I was too busy saying, "What the hell?" to really take it all in.
posted by komara at 8:38 AM on January 26, 2016 [10 favorites]

The magic out of nowhere for Quentin and Julia just kind of baffled me. Also, they did a really bad passage of time, evident only by the fact that Julia's cut had scarred up pretty good. The sex stuff all seems kind of hammered into the plot, be it Julia's above mentioned assault in the bathroom to the ten second levitating sex scene ("Hey, so we had this Zero G sex scene lately that went over well....").

Complaints aside, I enjoyed it enough to proceed.
posted by Atreides at 9:21 AM on January 26, 2016

someone else will have to get to episode 2.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:14 AM on January 26, 2016

Thanks, komara. Think I'll give this a pass for now.
posted by skycrashesdown at 10:50 AM on January 26, 2016

I showed up - accidentally on premiere day, I thought it had already started - already hating it because of the changes, knowing the timeline had to be all fucked up because you can't make a TV show that has no plot for the first 6 months of show-time*, knowing that certain things would have to be shoehorned into the pilot (the sex, in particular) because you have to make it clear up front you're That Kind of Show.

And I came out pretty fine with it. I like the age bump just because I feel less creepy watching 30-playing-22 having TV sex than 25-playing-18. I'm fine with Hot Penny for my own selfish reasons. I see what they're having to do with Julia's story and I think it's going to work. I definitely think the writers get it.

They really have made Quentin exactly the proper amount of punchable and sympathetic. And I always loved that Beast scene in the book and they did a pretty damn great job of that, which gives me high hopes for some of the other fx opportunities to come.

*I loved that part of the book and I personally would watch a TV show about just that but I suspect I am in the minority.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:04 AM on January 26, 2016 [7 favorites]

Eliot is perfectly cast. It is amazing.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 2:16 AM on January 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I really like all of the casting. I also really approve of the fact that they made Penny more interesting rather than the sort of garbage non-character he was in the books.

The main thing that is bothering me is the Chosen One stuff, especially with the Beast taking an overt interest in Quentin right away, and all the Brakebills staff knowing that he is special somehow. I mean, I get that Jane Chatwin sort of takes an interest in Quentin early in the book, but I feel like a big part of the message of the book is that people don't have a destiny, that there's nothing big and important waiting for you to show you how special you are. Even if you are objectively pretty damn special on the sole dint of being a magician.

I guess I can look ahead and see how the gang's extended bacchanal of sex, drugs, and depression after graduation would be hard to make compelling for more than half an episode of a television show, but cutting that whole aspect from the story really makes it feel EXACTLY like Harry-Potter-With-Sex rather than an interesting deconstruction of the Potterverse and stories like it.

Anyhow, I haven't watched episode two yet, and I'm going to, so maybe the Chosen One aspect will slow down a bit once the story really gets underway.
posted by 256 at 7:21 AM on January 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

By the way, any complaints if I post a book included discussion post for episode 2?
posted by Atreides at 7:49 AM on January 27, 2016

I think Be Bold is the watchword around here.
posted by 256 at 8:09 AM on January 27, 2016

I tend to hate movie adaptations of books I like. There's just not enough screen time to fit all the good stuff in. I thought the Harry Potter films were such a failure because they crammed so much plot in at the expense of character development (and toward the end they had to jettison most of the plot as well!). So an ongoing series has potential to use a lot more of the material. On the other hand, you can't really just film one chapter a week. You have to use all your cast members pretty much every week. You have to structure it to grab the audience right away and build the world in the background as you go, dropping crumbs for the bigger plot while having some story that resolves week to week. So the structure of the 3 novels was going to have to totally go out the window.

So far, I think they've pretty much made the right calls. Aging up Quentin is important not just for now, early in the series, but for later. I have no idea how fast they're planning to burn through the plot, but he has to get pretty grizzled and worn out for book 3. Alice is the one bit of casting I'm struggling with, but Alice is a bit of a cipher in the books, too, so I'm willing to wait and see. Dean Fogg is a huge improvement over how he's written in the books. Julia's storyline seems needlessly compressed, but I dunno, maybe they're planning to only take 3 seasons to do the whole shebang. I thought I would hate moving the Beast into the very first episode, but it brings in the high stakes right away. Fillory looks just like I imagined it.

With fandom in general being the way it is nowadays, it takes guts to restructure a story to something more appropriate to its medium. I'm cautiously optimistic. Tonight I'll watch episode 2 and see if I still am.
posted by rikschell at 12:10 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

"Fillory looks just like I imagined it."

When the Chatwin children stepped through the clock I thought, "Fillory looks a lot like City Park here in New Orleans" and about two seconds later my suspicion was confirmed when I saw this fountain in the background of a shot for a second or two.

Lots of Brakebills looks like Tulane University, FYI. The long green space in which Quentin walks just before meeting Eliot for the first time is Newcomb Quad, if I'm not mistaken.
posted by komara at 2:57 PM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh man. So I watched Episodes 1-3 and liked them enough to get the first book, but now I'm really fucking confused as to how these two stories can work together. The book is about the slow creep of everything you condensing horrible, every escape failing. But Brakebills thus far looks cool and sexy and fun, and doesn't really convey how dangerous yet kind of boring it is. A summoning spell from the start, rather than bumping the podium and causing a syllable to be dropped? I don't know how they will get from here to the end of the book.
posted by corb at 12:07 PM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

The smartest thing Syfy’s “The Magicians” does, right from the start, is putting protagonist Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) in a psych ward. That’s not canonical—it’s not part of the character’s backstory

True, but my sense from the books is that multiple characters are struggling with depression at different times, so I would say it's not way out of line. I reserve judgment of course.

I've decided to reread the books as the episodes continue, and one thing I'm wondering is if Penny's physical characteristics are described at all. The only thing I can find is that he's described as a punk, which made me assume he was white. But I thought the guy they cast really brought across Penny's antisocial, awkward dickishness. And I've been pretty happy with the casting in general. So I'm not too concerned either way, I'm more just curious if my take from the books was correct!
posted by A dead Quaker at 9:20 PM on February 5, 2016

The break from the books makes sense, but they have 13 episodes to tell the first part of this story, with another 13 planned in its second season. Slow down! I'm tempted to try and track points in the first episode alone from the books to see how far they went in the first hour, but I'm sure someone has done that already. Unfortunately, I can't find any such cross-referencing at the moment, and the wikia for the first episode is stubby at the moment.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:01 AM on March 2, 2016

I binged S1 Magicians this past weekend. I haven't read the books - is Brakebills repeatedly referenced as a magical Yale there? I sort of assumed it was Harvard-like since Grossman went to Harvard.

I nearly shut off the first episode at the bathroom sexual assault because REALLY, people?

I think there was something in the air in 2009. Grossman published this, and Cecilia Tan published the first book in her Magic University series. The last Potter book was published in 2007, so I think there was a cultural zeitgeist of "AND THEN WHAT? COLLEGE? HUH?"
posted by rmd1023 at 7:33 AM on March 27, 2017

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