By Jeff Jensen
Updated December 16, 2015 at 12:00 PM EST
Credit: Lorenzo Agius/Syfy

It’s curious that Syfy would sneak-peek The Magicians the week that Star Wars: The Force Awakensmaterializes in theaters. From a certain mind-tricky point of view, I’d say the network was trolling its own audience. The pilot for this dark adult fantasy introduces us to Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph of Aquarius), a bright and broody man-child whose imagination has long been owned by a children’s fantasy: an obscure book series called Fillory and Further, about kids who commute between their war-torn here and an enchanted over-there via a grandfather clock — a wrinkle in time, encased within an occult antique. Quentin’s fanboy obsession is an escape from the rawness of reality, a form of self-medication – a supplement to the pills he pops for depression. But as we find him, prepping for grad school and coming to grips with his arrested life, the melancholy millennial is ready to commit to putting childish things away, to “selling the comic-book collection and getting serious.” Ouch. I understand nostalgia-shaming from film critics sick of writing about plaything pop, but et tu, Syfy? The stormtrooper costume I was planning to wear on the opening night of Star Wars just walked itself out of the house and into the garbage can. Time to put on a gray suit and get rich, I guess.

I joke, of course. (It was a Jar Jar costume.) The Magicians isn’t a nasty scold of Young Adult geekery, but it is a fantasy that gets you reflecting on your relationship to fantasy, a looking-glass fiction held up to a world cluttered with looking-glass fictions. In case that all sounds as square as graduate studies, worry not, this isn’t some tony British thing like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but a distinctly American pop-aware enterprise with an abundance of salty cynicism and sex magic, plus a sinister force of antagonism called The Beast that — with all due respect to Messrs. Kylo Ren and Snoke — is the creepiest thing you’ll see on a screen this week.

The Magicians is part of Syfy’s continuing attempt to burnish its brand with sophisticated genre fans and prestige TV snots put off by tweet-chasing schlock like Sharknado and Z Nation. In fact, it comes the same week as Syfy premiered two stabs at serious-minded sci-fi: The Expanse (an ongoing series) and the aptly titled Childhood’s End, a miniseries adaptation of the Arthur C. Clarke novel. Based on an acclaimed trilogy of novels by Lev Grossman, The Magicians feels of a piece with 12 Monkeys, Syfy’s smart and solid adaptation of Terry Glliam’s pre-millennial head trip, and shares a large measure of that show’s grungy, alt-culture spirit. In comic-book parlance, The Magicians feels like a Vertigo comic deconstruction of the wonderland hero category of fantasy literature. (Actually, there is such a Vertigo comic, The Unwritten, a fraternal twin to Grossman’s work, which debuted the same year as his first novel.) The pilot — which you can preview Wednesday night following the conclusion of Childhood’s End (The Magicians officially debuts Jan. 25) — is an effective introductory chapter to a story that speaks to a moment cluttered with both escapist fantasy and neo-gothic gloominess. It’s Harry Potter, distressed with a Heavy Metal acid bath.

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The communion with and subversion of all things Oz and Narnia and Potter begins right away, with a prologue involving two wizardly adults and cryptic dialogue about a threat of evil and a hero to groom (I was reminded of the prologue to J.K. Rowling’s first novel), and scenes establishing Quentin as damaged, depressed/bored, and socially awkward. The difference, though, is that Quentin is 22-ish and applying to Yale, not 11-ish and heading into middle school. His passion for Fillory and Further may have assuaged his loneliness and pointed him toward transcendent truths, but it hasn’t done much to help him negotiate his present, and in fact, it’s bummed him out for it. The song that plays during the woozy, murkily lit opening scenes — MGMT’s snarky and sanguine reflection on the rock star dream-life “Time To Pretend” — captures his simultaneous sense of heightened drama and profound disillusionment as well as The Magician’s ironic perspective. Quentin is The Boy Who Hasn’t Begun to Live.

Almost immediately after deciding to put all things YA behind him, Quentin is inexplicably transported to a college in upstate New York that turns magical adepts into skilled magicians. Here, the show’s gloom and grit give way to a world that’s bright and colorful yet suspiciously sterile. Brakebills University represents a whole swath of secret schools for super-powered oddballs that skew more Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters than Hogwarts. The exterior evokes history, but the interiors lack soul — they’re modern, all business. The depiction of a student body comprised of jaded witches, stoner sorcerers, and sexually adventurous psychics organized and stratified by magical kind and class makes for some interesting visuals, but superpowers aside, this kind of sorting hat satire feels old hat. But I am intrigued by the mystery of the school’s third-year burnouts, only a few whom remain, and those who wander the campus like ghosts, pale and lifeless. What happened to them?!

RELATED VIDEO: Behind the magic with the cast of The Magicians

Brush away the fairy dust, and Brakebills is no different than any other secular university, at least in spirit, or rather, in the lack of one. Usually schools in this genre proceed from some stated or hidden moral mission to groom heroic character. If that’s in the Brakebills charter, then it’s really well hidden. “The school exists for a single timeless purpose: to reveal your innate abilities and hone them to the highest degree,” Quentin is told. “Now what you do after that is entirely up to you. If you want to take over the world, we don’t teach that, but give it a go.” Brakebills becomes even more interesting as allegory when Quentin discovers that it’s a gateway – or maybe a blockade? — to a magical realm that Quentin knows well: it’s Fillory, the Edenesque otherworld of his favorite fiction. During a brief visit to Fillory, Quentin is told that Brakebills can’t be trusted. The notion of an allegedly magical institution that misrepresents, parasitically exploits, or just poorly serves the metaphysical realm from which it derives its power or meaning recalls, to my mind, another anti-Narnia critique of fantasy literature (and religion), Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. It’ll be interesting to see where The Magicians goes with the implicit genre commentary, or if it continues with it at all.

The world and perspective of The Magicians is more immediately interesting than the characters. Jason Ralph’s Quentin is a homely and haunted magic nerd that toggles between sad-eyed innocence and wide-eyed wonder, a stark and necessary contrast to his cynical peers and classmates. He looks like Robert Sean Leonard from Dead Poets Society but with hippier hair and zero carpe diem spirit. He’s as interesting — and not — as that. The Hermione to his Harry, Alice Quinn (Olivia Taylor Dudley), is a modest-mouse perfectionist, and a dull cliché, but there might be more to her than meets the eye. I’m currently more interested in a parallel narrative about Quentin’s childhood friend (and true love?) Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve). A former Fillory fanatic, she, too, gets invited to audition for entry at Brakebills, but she flunks the admissions test. Desperate to prove that she belongs, Julia meets a rogue who leads her down a different rabbit hole, into the company of an underworld movement that may or may not exist in opposition to the Brakebills establishment. Who’s the real hero of this story? And who — or what — is the villain? A gray suited, eyeball-plucking menace known as The Beast, whose face is obscured by a swarm of insects? Is he a demon from Fillory? Or might he a gone-native visitor warped by a world not meant for permanent residence?

I haven’t read Lev Grossman’s books, so I can’t tell you if The Magicians is faithful to his work or how it deviates from it. While writing this piece, I came across an interview Grossman gave several years ago. “Having been raised on Narnia, it took me a long time to accept that I would never get there, even long after I understood that on a literal level it was impossible because, duh, Narnia isn’t real. And as a result I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on around me. I wasn’t very interested in this world. For me part of growing up was figuring out how to break up with Narnia. I think I did that a lot later in life than most people.” The question Grossman was answering — “Can dreams and nostalgia ruin one’s present?” – is worth asking again, here at the moment of peak pop pastiche. Fargo, the TV anthology series inspired by the themes and aesthetic of the Coen brothers, just completed an extraordinary season. Jedi reboot master J.J. Abrams appears to have completed the daunting mission of re-awakening the Star Wars franchise. On Christmas, The Hateful Eight, the new offering from misfit toy recycler Quentin Tarantino. Spellbinding stuff. But when does our fandom and nostalgia for old pop dreams – even artfully rebooted and recycled ones — turn beastly? Perhaps much like Ernest Cline’s escape-your-escapism sci-fi opus Ready Player One, (soon to be a film by Steven Spielberg), The Magicians prompts the question and entertains us with it at the same time. Maybe it can say something about how to carry our past forward without being owned by it. Or maybe it will come to own us, too. B.

Episode Recaps

The Magicians

Based on Lev Grossman’s book trilogy, this fantasy Syfy series follows the adventures of students at Brakebills University, a graduate school specializing in magic.

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