The Magicians trades in the black magic of genre subversion, scalding children’s fantasy with an acid bath of adultness to produce heady, kinky fantasy. Hot sex! Shocking violence! Foamy jars of centaur sperm! But the show— adapted from Lev Grossman’s books — has conjured more darkness than its glib tone can handle. Last year’s finale had Julia (Stella Maeve) recovering a suppressed memory of being raped by Reynard (Mackenzie Astin), a foxy trickster god. She then betrayed her friends and aligned with their mass-murdering enemy, the Beast, a.k.a. Martin Chatwin (Charles Mesure), also a victim of rape, to hunt her attacker. Oz this is not.
There might have been a way to earn these risky choices, but season 2 can’t pull that rabbit out of its hat. In the first three episodes, Julia and Martin plan to attack Reynard on Earth, while in enchanted Fillory, Quentin (Jason Ralph) and pals prep an assault on Martin. Both arcs emphasize the show’s penchant for comedy, a choice that diminishes the stakes and evil. Martin loses his menace; Julia’s trauma becomes trivialized. A major turning point hinges on the contrivances of bad timing, a dropped knife, and a bowel movement that poisons a magical well. The pileup of ridiculousness blunts the emotional impact of a key tragedy. There’s some novel storytelling, like a reality-hopping, identity-blurring four-way sex scene for Eliot (Hale Appleman), whose elevation to king yields amusement. Still, the well is tainted; the magic, gone for me. I’m putting away the anti-childish thing that is The Magicians. C
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The Magicians season 2 premieres Wednesday, Jan. 25 at 9 p.m. ET on Syfy.