Thursday, April 14, 2016

The most intriguing part of The Magicians isn't the magic--it's the material that explores the dark side of being a fantasy or sci-fi nerd

The following contains spoilers for the first-season finale of The Magicians.

So Syfy's bawdy and foul-mouthed The Magicians, which wrapped up its first season earlier this week, is Harry Potter for grown-ups, right? Well, I wouldn't really know. I never read any of J.K. Rowling's novels, and I've watched only Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, better known in America as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I found the 2001 Chris Columbus movie to be a ponderous slog back in 2002, so I never sat through another Harry Potter flick again. Not even Daniel Radcliffe can sit through most of his own Potter movies: he actually dislikes most of his performances as the titular boy wizard ("My acting is very one-note and I can see I got complacent and what I was trying to do just didn't come across," he once admitted) and considers his performance in the fifth movie to be his least flawed.

Potter is a franchise that just won't die, even after I resisted watching the seven other Potter movies for so long because of both the tedium of much of the 152-minute (!) first movie and the fact that the Potter franchise is white as fuck. Universal opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction at its Universal Studios Hollywood theme park last weekend. In July, the Wizarding World attraction will be followed by the West End premiere of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a two-part stage play that takes place 19 years after the events of Rowling's final Potter novel, and then in November, Warner Bros. will attempt to build a series of Potter prequel movies out of the 2001 Rowling book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a fake school textbook about the creatures Harry and his Hogwarts classmates encountered in the Potter novels.

So because of the onslaught of all this Potter shit (and because that new Fantastic Beasts teaser trailer actually looks enticing), I've lately been considering doing a rewatch of Sorcerer's Stone and a marathon in which I would be viewing the Potter sequels for the first time, as homework for the AFOS blog's "I Can't Believe I've Never Seen It Till Now!" series. For now though, if I want my magic school genre fix, I prefer Syfy's adaptation of Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy, a series of novels I was unfamiliar with before the January debut of the Syfy version, which has been renewed for a second season.

"Potter for grown-ups"--the most frequently repeated shorthand description of The Magicians by the press--isn't a completely accurate breakdown of the show, although there are a few campus scenes of beloved character actors (whattup, "Cutthroat Bitch"!) teaching difficult sorcery techniques to the younger cast members, just like the only scenes in Sorcerer's Stone that didn't make me snooze. In its first season, The Magicians has been more like a millennial In the Mouth of Madness, which, for me, is a more enticing hook than "Potter for grown-ups."

Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) and Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve) are lifelong friends who remain fans of an old series of Narnia-esque YA fantasy novels known as Fillory and Further. The Fillory books led to Quentin and Julia both pursuing magic--not the fluffy-haired Vegas kind of magic but a much more powerful and ancient kind where its most skilled practitioners can manipulate time or teleport themselves. Quentin attends Brakebills University, an Ivy League grad school for magicians and the show's equivalent of Hogwarts, while Julia, who failed to get in to Brakebills, is part of an underground community of unsanctioned magicians known as hedge witches. The second Fantastic Beasts teaser trailer reveals that Newt Scamander, the film's hero, was expelled from Hogwarts, but he doesn't seem to be broken up about getting kicked out, whereas Julia, Newt's outcast counterpart, winds up enormously depressed after flunking the Brakebills entrance exam. She puts so much pressure on herself to become a legit magician that she doesn't care about either venturing into dangerous territory--the hedge witches' favorite kind of territory--or betraying Quentin to become one.

Depression also fucks with Quentin, who's first seen at the start of the first season in a psychiatric hospital--kind of like Sam Neill at the start of In the Mouth of Madness--due to his depression over how real life is nothing like the fantasy world of Fillory, a world Quentin suspects is real, and he later turns out to be right about its existence. The most memorable section of The World of Star Trek, sci-fi author David Gerrold's candid book about the things he loved and hated about the show that launched his writing career, is Gerrold's description of an unsettling urban legend about a Star Trek fan who wanted to repress his emotions like Spock and committed suicide over failing to transform himself completely into his Vulcan hero. Quentin is every Star Trek fan who's fallen so much in love with Star Trek's utopian future that when real life sucks in comparison to the Trekverse, his disappointment consumes him. Some nerds might kill themselves over that disappointment, while others are more like Quentin and are less extreme about coping with it.

The Magicians is precisely about people's idolatry of Star Trek without ever making Trek the object of Quentin's obsession, although he does turn out to be, in addition to being a Fillory and Further fanboy, a Trekkie who sometimes references the '60s show, as well as 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Quentin's extremely nerdy ST:TMP reference takes place during a moment when he and his classmates follow the advice of Brakebills dropout Kady Orloff-Diaz (Jade Tailor) and purge themselves of their emotions in order to be more skilled at battle magic. We even see Quentin chatting up another Trek fan at school to barter his collection of Leonard Nimoy record albums for a spot as a lab partner with Alice Quinn (Olivia Taylor Dudley), an introverted classmate who comes from a family of not-so-introverted, sexually adventurous magicians (Alice's parents are played by Judith Hoag, the former April O'Neil, and Tom Amandes, this season's go-to guy for mildly scummy dads of blond nerd girls) and becomes Quentin's love interest.

As much as I love the spellcasting scenes on The Magicians--instead of waving around clichéd magic wands, Quentin, Julia, Kady and the other characters are seen casting spells via finger tutting, a real-life offshoot of the hip-hop dance technique known as tutting, and the finger tutting, choreographed for the show by Paul Becker and Kevin Li, looks badass and perfectly conveys the power and weight of the characters' spells--the magic isn't really the most intriguing part of The Magicians. Neither is the sex, although sex is the subject of one of the season's best-written bits of dialogue, an honest and rare-to-see-on-basic-cable conversation between Quentin and Alice where they open up about the difficulties of satisfying each other in bed.

The most intriguing part of The Magicians is the equally honest way that Quentin's journey is similar to the experience of every fantasy or sci-fi nerd who's had to come to grips with the fact that his or her favorite pop-culture phenomenon since childhood--this doesn't apply just to Trek, and it could also apply to Potter, Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars or even A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones--is full of imperfections that can't be ignored as an adult, and the creator of that beloved phenomenon isn't an immaculate human being. For some nerds, that moment can be as saddening or impactful as the day when a child who admires his or her parents realizes they aren't perfect.

"As we know from life, blowing up childhood heroes is part of growing up. It's the most difficult part of growing up," said Supernatural veteran Sera Gamble, The Magicians' showrunner, in a Syfy featurette where she discussed Quentin's pivotal discovery that Fillory and Further series author Christopher Plover (Charles Shaughnessy) was a child molester and that both Plover's monstrous behavior and the books themselves are the source of an unstoppable form of evil--this is where The Magicians reminds me the most of In the Mouth of Madness. Quentin is also every Star Wars nerd who's had to deal with the limitations of George Lucas as a storyteller after the first couple of Star Wars movies--or every person of color who used to love the Lord of the Rings trilogy before realizing that J.R.R. Tolkien's writing is full of racist overtones.

Plover's sexual abuse of Martin Chatwin (Nicholas Croucher), the boy who was the basis for the Fillory and Further protagonist of the same name, caused the traumatized Martin to study magic to get his revenge on Plover and then ruthlessly conquer Fillory under a new monstrous identity he created for himself: the faceless menace known as the Beast (Charles Mesure). The six-fingered Beast is the reason why Quentin and his new friends at Brakebills spend much of the back half of the first season training themselves in the difficult art of battle magic. In addition to holding captive both Plover and a Brakebills student who went missing during spring break two years ago, the elusive Beast kills a couple of Brakebills instructors and blinds another faculty member, Dean Fogg (Rick Worthy, who--in what has to be a twisted shout-out to Eyes, the entertaining and short-lived P.I. show where Worthy previously worked with both Gamble and Magicians co-showrunner John McNamara--is gorily deprived of his eyes). The pilot episode's trippy introduction of the Beast, whose powers immobilize Quentin and his classmates in the middle of class so that they're unable to lift an elaborately choreographed finger against the mayhem the Beast forces them to witness, is a creepy and effectively directed moment of prolonged and silent horror on a par with perhaps my all-time favorite moment of sustained horror on TV. That would be the moment when a perspiring Carl Kolchak attempts to not awake a sleeping zombie while pouring salt into the zombie's mouth and sewing his mouth shut to end the zombie's reign of terror.

The Beast's lecture hall attack is--other than the sex scenes and the storylines about depression, addiction and, later on in the season, the harrowing subject of rape--the first major sign that The Magicians isn't a show for kids, as well as a highlight of the show's horror side. At times, The Magicians does old-fashioned horror better than even Penny Dreadful--a show about Frankenstein, Satan and werewolves--does, and I like that show too. One of the advantages of an hour-long serialized drama over a 152-minute movie is that the former allows for richer and more varied storytelling, so The Magicians can switch from eye-gouging horror to comedy and back again without resulting in the tonal whiplash that often occurs in movies that want to pile everything but the kitchen sink into two and a half hours.

Richer storytelling means richer characters, and that's why Gamble and McNamara's adaptation of The Magicians appeals to me more than the Potter franchise. Because the characters are older and have been through some shit, the dramatic conflicts are more interesting. In a kids' film, Julia would be simplistically rewritten into being a villain, partly because there isn't much time during a kids' film to show many sides to each character, whereas Gamble and McNamara's show, despite its occasional weakness for burning through story too quickly in one hour, takes its time developing most of the characters, so what we get is not Snidely Whiplash but an ordinary human being who constantly makes bad decisions and can't be easily placed in a hero category or a villain category.

A lot of viewers complain about how unheroic and overly emo they find Quentin to be. Over at Uproxx, Pilot Viruet, whose favorite character from the Magicians novels is Julia, grumbles about Quentin's frequent whininess, which she says was actually much less tolerable during the book version, while Ken Tucker, the Yahoo TV columnist and ex-Entertainment Weekly critic whom I best remember from EW for his bizarre moments of Star Trek-bashing, was put off by the "excessively morose and jittery" qualities of Jason Ralph's acting in the first couple of episodes because Quentin reminded him of "too many ostentatiously moody, arty types" from college. What the fuck do you want, Ken Tucker? Robbie Amell as Quentin? That's what 994 other hour-long shows about young and attractive folks with powers would do, and The Magicians isn't one of those 994 other shows.

But Quentin's unheroic qualities--Ralph looks and speaks like a young, unbearded Martin Scorsese, and if some director ever makes another period piece that takes place at the first Woodstock, Ralph ought to be cast as Scorsese--are precisely what makes the character fun to watch (and perhaps an annoying person to talk to in real life). Scorsese is a film nerd rather than a fantasy or sci-fi nerd, but if he added Trek, Game of Thrones and Doctor Who to his leanings for the films of Kenji Mizoguchi and Michael Powell, I bet he'd sound a lot like Quentin, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the Fillory novels brings to mind any interview where Scorsese recalls moments and details from obscure foreign films.

Quentin is a big dork in frumpy and completely unbuttoned button-down shirts, like a lot of nerds really are. He isn't a Hollywood idea of a nerd like Trek's own Reginald Barclay, the franchise's well-meaning but flawed attempt to give its most socially awkward fans a character to relate to, or the unconvincing, "hey, we're cartoonish, so we wear the same clothes every day like the kids on Scooby-Doo!"-type nerds on The Big Bang Theory. There's no "Bazinga!"-type bullshit on The Magicians, and thank fuck for that. He's a realistic and more grounded depiction of a nerd--like the teens on Freaks and Geeks and a lot of the characters on The Venture Bros., the animated Adult Swim show I like to think of as the anti-Big Bang Theory.

And I never expected to hear a scripted TV show mention the Bechdel Test in its dialogue, but that's precisely what happens during the very funny cold open of "Homecoming," my favorite episode of The Magicians' first season. "Homecoming" visits Quentin's extremely nerdy subconscious, where he fantasizes about both Alice and Julia and feels guilty about it, as we learn from a bit of dialogue that's straight out of real life and perfectly nails any moment when those of us who are progressive-thinking straight men find ourselves wondering, "I totally agree with the Bechdel Test's critique of the underwhelming ways that female characters are often written, but what do I do when an attractive actress' bit of fanservice turns me into a drooling vegetable? Is it wrong to have enjoyed it?"

Since I've never ventured past Sorcerer's Stone, I highly doubt the Potter flicks contain a character of color as compelling or entertaining as William "Penny" Adiyodi (Arjun Gupta), the reluctant visitor of Quentin's subconscious in the "Homecoming" cold open due to his not-yet-fully-mastered abilities as a Traveler (a person with the power to astrally project and teleport through time and space). I love how The Magicians put an Indian American guy into a role that's usually written for black folks and never for Asian guys (except when Justin Lin intervenes): the gruff--as well as infinitely cooler and more sexually experienced--foil who often rolls his eyes at his friend's whiteness and dorky ways.

Quentin and Penny aren't friends for the first few episodes of the season and even come to blows via battle magic at one point in one of those earlier episodes. Their dynamic brings to mind the rivalry-turned-friendship between Brisco County and Bowler during an earlier McNamara show, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. Some Magicians viewers would complain early on in comments sections about Penny's prickly attitude being one-note. But as the season wears on, that prickliness becomes more understandable: Penny is able to hear other people's most private thoughts, like when Quentin hears nothing but Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" in his head, and he finds himself teleporting (often inadvertently) into private places no person in their right mind would want to visit, whether it's someone else's dreams, the Beast's dungeon or Quentin's bedroom while he's in the middle of banging Alice, so no wonder he's often grumpy. Gupta nicely handles the Bowler-ish half of Quentin and Penny's Brisco-and-Bowler-style interactions, whether during Penny's enjoyment of the embarrassing dorkiness of Quentin's sex dream about Alice and Julia or during Penny's appalled reaction to Quentin's racist thoughts about Penny while Quentin's trapped in a dream about being reinstitutionalized, due to a spell cast by Julia to allow Marina Andrieski (Kacey Rohl), her mentor from the hedge witch community, to find her way back to Brakebills, which expelled Marina.

Penny and Alice are clearly stronger and more confident magicians than Quentin, who has a great moment of maturity in this week's season finale when he realizes he's not cut out to be the Chosen One in the Chosen One narrative Jane Chatwin (Game of Thrones alum Esme Bianco), the Beast's sister, guided him to play a part in at the start of the season, so he encourages Alice to take over and lead the battle against the Beast. When The Magicians intriguingly turns the Chosen One narrative on its head at that moment, it makes me wonder if Quentin is actually just a Trojan horse for the heroics of Alice, Julia, Kady, Penny and openly gay senior grad student Eliot Waugh (Hale Appleman), much like how white characters like Meredith Grey and Piper Chapman functioned as Trojan horses to introduce viewers to certain kinds of rarely-seen-elsewhere-on-TV stories about women of color that Shonda Rhimes and Jenji Kohan were eager to include on Grey's Anatomy and Orange Is the New Black, respectively. Despite having enjoyed its first season, The Magicians hasn't made me want to go read Lev Grossman's original novels, so I don't know what happens after this point in the book version.

But whatever happens next season, The Magicians has already accomplished plenty of remarkable shit during its first season to become a worthwhile highlight of Syfy's current lineup, whether it's the show's sense of humor, like the season finale's meta jab at its own typical-for-basic-cable low budget ("The truth is the castle was constructed to be invisible, primarily for budgetary reasons. The royals had spent their entire seasonal allowance and then realized they still had a castle to build, so they figured builder's grade material is just fine if you can't see it"), or the way the show takes many of its viewers' past experiences with geek-friendly franchises they've either loved or ended up hate-watching and cleverly infuses those experiences into a coming-of-age narrative. Remember how everyone thought Heroes was going to be a worthwhile and sharply written epic drama about the consequences of extraordinary powers, before Alan Sepinwall understandably lost his mind over its monotonous humorlessness (outside of Hiro and Ando) and aimless wheel-spinning? The Magicians on Syfy is that sharply written drama.

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