April 12, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “The Magicians”


Season 1 of THE MAGICIANS had plenty of flaws, but lack of ambition wasn’t one of them.  In a way unseen on Syfy since the days of Battlestar Galactica, The Magicians wanted to be about everything:  Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, Doctor Who, the very concept of the supernatural as escapist entertainment, the college experience, time travel, alternate universes, storytelling, rape, growing up, childhood trauma, betrayal, friendship, love, and of course magic–magic as drugs, magic as sex, magic as religion, and the inverse of all of those.  The show has been all over the place tonally and narratively, and although that’s also true in part of Lev Grossman’s original novel, series creators John McNamara and Sera Gamble made things even more difficult for themselves by taking a parallel storyline from a later novel in the series and moving it upfront, as well as using aspects of other stories from the novels.  In some ways the season fell as badly as a blown spell, but it was more often exhilarating, high on its own daring.  (That daring extended to its soundtrack, which may have set a basic cable record for the number of times the volume was–barely–lowered on the word “fuck”.)

Tonight’s season finale, written by McNamara, Gamble and Story Editor David Reed, and directed by Scott Smith, was a microcosm of the season.  It crammed its hour with enough story to fill a miniseries, and for good measure suddenly introduced the element of arch yet earnest narration.  It took our heroes to the land of Fillory, Grossman’s version of Narnia and other fantasy kingdoms, a fantastic place ruled by gods named Ember and Umber, where animals speak and the trees tell time.  It was the place that Quentin (Jason Ralph) and Julia (Stella Maeve) had dreamed of visiting since they’d read the novels about the place as children.  It was also the dwelling place of The Beast, a homicidal monster who turned out to be the grown-up version of Martin Chatwin, one of the Fillory-traveling children of those novels.  All too quickly, Quentin and Julia, along with Penny (Arjun Gupta), Margo (Summer Bishil), Eliot (Hale Appleman), and Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) went through the steps of their quest.  There was a marriage, a rescue, a massacre, an invincible weapon, the need to drink a glass of god semen, an awful hidden memory revealed, a showdown with Martin and a cliffhanger.  The script whizzed its way through it all, but wasn’t able to linger on anything, and the climactic revelations were rushed and deprived of some of their impact.

That’s been a problem throughout the season.  With the exception of the episode where Quentin found himself in a mental institution that was located inside his own head (where he’d been trapped by Julia), there were so many ideas flying around that the characters remained muddled and blandly underdeveloped (Quentin) or little more than types (Penny and Margo).  Julia, whose story was the one brought in from another novel, and who as a result was at the center of her own storyline, ended up faring best, although even for her critical parts of the narrative didn’t get the attention they needed.  Some of the actors, notably Maeve, Dudley and Gupta, managed to rise above these restrictions, while others had a tougher time.

There were other issues.  Although this was an A-level Syfy project, the show’s resources were very limited, and it was entirely unable to realize the visuals contemplated by Grossman’s imagery, which became a particular problem when the action moved to alternate universes like the Neitherlands and Fillory.  McNamara and Gamble did their best at keeping the story’s incredibly dense mythology clear, even when it reversed back on itself and mutated, but sometimes things were simply confusing.

Still, better a mixed bag like The Magicians than a dozen Killjoys or The Expanses.  For years, Syfy has allowed what’s seemed to be every other network to take over its chosen genre, huddling itself in the safest, least exciting mainstream of that universe.  The Magicians is a big swing, and when it connects, it makes magic of its own.  It’s earned its Season 2 renewal both creatively and in the ratings, along with all the right and wrong decisions it’s likely to make along the way.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."