The Magicians: Season 1, Episode 1 – “Unauthorized Magic”

Good ideas and great effects are marred by poor narrative execution in the pilot episode of SyFy's latest offering.

The first episode of The Magicians can best be described as a good idea executed poorly. “Unauthorized Magic” isn’t bad, but as the first offering of a new series, it lands with a resounding thud instead of the “boom” necessary to maintain interest over a long period of time. It’s an irritating development, because behind the paucity of the episode, it isn’t hard to see the framework of a good idea waiting to be fleshed out. The trouble is that I’m not sure if those hints of good ideas are coming from the writers of this show, or from Lev Grossman, the writer of the source material.

“Unauthorized Magic” deals with the trials and tribulations of two best friends, Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) and Julia “Jules” Wicker (Stella Maeve). Quentin and Julia were apparently high school outcasts who bonded over their shared love of an obscure series of fantasy books, titled Fillory and Further. But as the two of them got older, Julia became more outgoing and Quentin more introverted, withdrawing further into his Fillory-inspired fantasy world. The episode and series begins with Quentin and Julia at the end of their undergraduate lives, and Julia attempting to push Quentin into the real world — an attempt that includes encouraging Quentin to interview for Yale’s philosophy program. When they find the interviewer dead, that sets off a chain of events that sees Quentin and Julia magicked away to upstate New York by the faculty of a magic college called Brakebills. Their stories diverge when Julia is essentially excommunicated from the world of formal magic, and Quentin is accepted into fantasy’s answer to the party college.

Quentin meets a cast of quirky misfits: Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), Eliot (Hale Appleman), Penny (Arjun Gupta), and Margo (Summer Bishil). And despite seeming to find a place for the first time in his life, Quentin starts getting dream-visions set in the Fillory world, its primary inhabitant warning Quentin that if he continues on the “traditional” path of magic, “The Beast” (Charles Mesure) is going to kill him. Meanwhile, the magically induced amnesia used against Julia proves to be ineffective, pushing her into a sort of crisis in which she’s aware of the magical world but unable to effectively deal with it. After Quentin and Julia meet again and Julia reveals that she’s still magically sensitive, Quentin pooh-poohs her ambitions and leaves her to be ambushed in the bathroom — in a very gratuitous near-rape scene — by Pete (David Hall), a member of a magical faction outside of Brakebills’ purview.

The conclusion of the episode comes back to Quentin’s arc, and introduces a cliff-hanger that sets up a conflict that was telegraphed in advance at multiple points in the episode. Without spoiling anything, the only real surprise about it was the fact that it came so soon.

I’m sure you can detect that I wasn’t particularly electrified by this episode, but I can admit there were things to admire about it. The visual effects for the magic were charming, for one. I was particularly impressed by the “moth effect” the CGI artists worked around a certain character’s head. “Unauthorized Magic” also played with the idea that, to the magically inclined, the supernatural can be as banal and ordinary as riding the subway or doing taxes. “The banality of the supernatural” is something unique to urban fantasy, and I really appreciated that this episode played to the genre’s strengths in that regard.

That being said, this episode suffered from three major flaws: missing chemistry between characters, a plot that lacks a great deal of coherence, and a transparent attempt to ape HBO.

I think that the HBO accusation is the most severe, if only because it does the most damage to the respect a viewer might have for the show. It’s obvious that someone had the idea of making The Magicians into a latter-day True Blood or Game of Thrones, because this episode was littered with trompe-l’oeil attempts at graphic sex and the old ultraviolence that seem so out-of-place that they disrupt the entire flow of the show. Beyond the distasteful “almost rape” later in the episode, one of the most laughable examples is when Penny and another student, Kady (Jade Tailor), meet for the first time at Brakebills. There’s a few moments of dull flirting — and then all of a sudden, the scene cuts to the two of them fucking. There’s no hint that it’s going to happen, and when it ends a minute later, the scene completely changes. The sex doesn’t add anything to the story or to the characters of Penny and Kady. It’s Syfy ham-fistedly saying to its audience, “Look, we’re basic cable’s answer to HBO — we can do the sex thing too!” But the limitations imposed on basic cable shows only serve to highlight how dissimilar the two networks are. We’re told that Penny and Kady are having sex, but because of basic cable’s squeamishness about nudity and such, they’re mostly clothed, and a blanket is covering up the lion’s share of the activity. The scene is less erotic than an old shoe, and instead of being titillated, I alternated between laughing and cringing at the desperation of the whole thing.

Worse, Arjun Gupta and Jade Tailor didn’t even seem all that interested in one another. Jason Ralph and Stella Maeve didn’t seem like friends, let alone best friends. Jason Ralph’s Quentin seemed too nebbish-y to be believable as a functional person. Olivia Taylor Dudley’s Alice seemed tsundere to the nth degree; in fact, most of the characters seem to have been reduced to broad archetypes (the tsundere girl, as previously mentioned; the rogue with a heart of gold, the swishy gay boy and his hag, etc) going through the motions of interacting with each other. There could be a confluence of various factors at work here: maybe the script was bad enough to demoralize the actors. Maybe the director was out of his league on television. Maybe the actors aren’t right for these roles. Maybe they were just trying to feel out the first episode. But regardless of the reasons, the acting is off-putting enough that it needs to be addressed by the executive producers. And if not, I suspect that The Magicians is not going to have a long run on Syfy.

“Unauthorized Magic” has trouble with its plot, too. I understand that novels need to be distilled in order to be shown on-screen, but whoever adapted Lev Grossman’s book to TV seems to have jettisoned the wrong things. I was baffled by how quickly Quentin and Julia accepted the existence of magic, and I still don’t quite understand why Eliot and Margo were so instantly intrigued by dull-as-dishwater Quentin that they’d become close enough for Quentin to call them his friends (at 31:54, for the record) in a matter of one or two weeks. The most jarring example of this problem starts 34 minutes into the episode. Julia confronts Quentin about the fact that she can still do magic despite her rejection, and she wants Quentin to appeal on her behalf to be let back into the magical society. It’s a pretty reasonable request, and when Julia does magic in front of Quentin, it seems pretty obvious to a viewer that hasn’t read the books that she’s not all that different than other magicians seen so far. Quentin — who’s only been a member of the magical world for a few weeks — lectures Julia about how her spell is actually inferior magic, as opposed to real magic; how Brakebills doesn’t just take people back in after they’ve been rejected; and how he can tell she doesn’t have “the potential”. But it’s absurd when you stop to think about it! Quentin’s been in magic-land for less time than it takes little kids to memorize their multiplication tables, but suddenly he’s the master of magical procedures? I’ve never read the novel behind this series, so I don’t know how things worked out in the book. But it feels to me that along the line, something crucial from the novel got cut or compressed, and the TV version is not better for the loss.

Which, unfortunately, is a running theme of this episode.

Kat Smalley is a graduate of Florida State University. Most of her nonfiction work is dedicated to cultural and philosophical analyses of sci-fi programs and video games. Her fiction has been published in Lambda Award-nominated Gay City Anthology vol. 5: Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam.

RATING 5 / 10