The Magicians, and the Desperation of Wanting Some Unknown Something Out of Life

Borrowed from

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Synopsis: Quentin’s not living the life he wants, and something about the fictional world in a particular fantasy series has captivated him all his life. Meanwhile, his best friend Julia is ready to get on with life, in a graduate program at Yale. Then both of them mysteriously find themselves in another University, taking an admission exam that tests their magic. Quentin passes, and Julia fails.

Quentin is admitted to the program, excited to learn magic, but slowly getting hints that there’s something dark and dangerous out there. And that practicing magic in general is risky, even life-threatening. Julia has her memory erased–but she finds a way to remember anyway. Now she’s cast out and desperate, because having seen the world of magic that was almost available to her, she wants it. Badly.

Series: First season is airing.

I’ve Watched: The first four episodes.

Verdict: It’s actually growing on me.

(FYI: Haven’t read the books, know nothing about them.)

I started out mostly frustrated and a little intrigued by this show. There was just enough to get me through to the second episode, and then the third. And as I continued watching, I started getting the suspicion that the things that I was unhappy with in the first episode might be that way by design. That the show is trying to convey something different with these characters than it initially appears to be. I don’t know yet if that’s actually the case or not, but with each episode, the suspicion gets stronger. And if this is what the show is actually going for–which is still an if–then that’s actually quite clever, and I like it.

Even from the beginning, the plot here is interesting, though it does follow some common tropes. The pilot is well executed, much better so than most. Objectively, this seemed like a good quality series, even when I most disliked it.  

And there’s something compelling about how the characters go after their goals. How they want what they’re doing so badly that they overlook the danger of it. In the background of the series, behind every scene and every interaction, there’s this feeling of desperation. It’s a really interesting thematic tie between all of the characters. That’s what the series is really about. Sheer, utter desperation, and not in any pretty heroic way. It’s a mess, and it makes a mess of the characters. That makes for a compelling enough thread to keep me invested.

Still, the show initially pissed me off.

Maybe that was because it depicted real life as terrible and empty, something that will inevitably suck all the wonder and happiness out of you. Maybe it’s that the two main characters–Quentin and Julia–have literally one of the worst friendships I’ve ever seen, the kind that pretends to be deep while utterly failing to provide any kind of meaningful support to either party. Or maybe it’s that, when one character decides to test Julia for potential powers by tearing off her shirt and using it to restrain her, he protests at the assumption that he might be some kind of rapist, saying he would never. (You keep telling yourself that, dude–after all, you clearly had no other option to test her powers than sexually assaulting her; it’s not like you wanted to do it, you had to [/sarcasm].)

For the first, I’m wary of how strongly the show seemed to be saying you can’t find anything meaningful in the world around you, no matter how hard you look. Especially when I look at this magic university and find that it isn’t different. The people are the same as you’d find in the non-magical world. The only thing that changed is the trappings. There are plenty of people in the world who are different and who feel different, but this whole university setting wouldn’t help them. Because it doesn’t really change anything.

But then I keep watching the series, and start to wonder if that isn’t the point. If the magic that these characters want so badly to develop, if the fulfillment they expect to get out of this, isn’t actually an illusion. Maybe when we see the characters strive so hard to find something meaningful in magic instead of in any other aspect of their lives, the show isn’t actually saying that there’s something insufficient about the world and life to make people happy–maybe it’s setting up the characters to realize (in a probably horrific way, given its status quo) that they’ve been looking for something to magically fix all of the unhappiness in their lives. And that it isn’t that easy. That there’s no elixir which will solve all their problems for them at the end of this journey.

If that’s what the show is actually going for–and it’s been willing to beat down its characters badly enough so far that it just might be–then that could be pretty compelling.

For Quentin and Julia’s friendship, wow, does it annoy me. They both seem much more interested in their own experiences than in those of the other person. Julia criticizes Quentin for his likes and interests, instead of supporting him. Quentin completely ignores Julia’s devastation at not being taught magic, taking the moment to revel in his victory and her failure instead. Both these scenes are just painful to watch, and it deteriorates from there.

On the other hand, this isn’t necessarily ignored later on down the line, and it creates conflict between them. I’m still skeptical, because we never saw anything positive in their friendship even before their present conflict. I have nothing to explain to me why these two are best friends in the first place. But we’ll see what the show does to this relationship in the future.

As for the guy who tore off Julia’s shirt, at least I’m sure of how I feel about that plot device. Every time I see him on screen, especially in a scene with Julia, it’s just ick. Sure, there’s a decent chance he’s a villain, but so what? And anyway, neither he nor the show seems to be fully aware of the creep factor here.

Some miscellaneous points:

I had one moment of solidarity with Quentin during the pilot. I totally did feel him, being at a party and sneaking off to read a book instead. Been there, done that. And I appreciate the whole awkward-but-not-ashamed-of-it thing, as I’ve been there and probably still am.

Then the fourth episode–it shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s exactly the kind of thing that could come off as trite and amateurish, but it manages to avoid every pitfall, and I’m not quite sure how. This episode, if any, is enough to convince that the series is being put together with real skill. Because it takes skill to pull off something that really shouldn’t work, making it flat out enjoyable. (I mean, that Taylor Swift song. If I hadn’t seen it, I probably wouldn’t have believed it.) And that gives me hope for the entire series.

Also, that moment when the main hero gets called out for having racial stereotypes, and (gasp) the world doesn’t end. That’s a great moment.

So in conclusion: This series can be really good if it could convince me it has any idea what it’s talking about. I can’t always tell whether the concept of the show is about revealing desperation in its characters, or being mean-spirited about the notion of anyone being happy with real life. I guess time will tell. I’m interested enough to keep watching. I do wish I could enjoy the show without the accompanying frustration, but that frustration is noticeably lessening with time.


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