by ETHAN PETERSON
creators Sera Gamble and John McNamara
For one magnificent moment, The Chronicles of Narnia is mysterious, frightening, and full of possibilities. Then it introduces Jesus, a lion. At least, when those white kids entered that wardrobe, there was the possibility something entertaining would come out of it. The Magicians, adapted from Lev Grossman's trilogy of the same name, does not even have that.
How boring is The Magicians? Well, let me get your take on how much you care about the emotional problems of white Ivy leaguers, who are the central characters of The Magicians. OK, so you know that doofus Rory Gilmore was dating whose father owned a newspaper? His name was Logan Shewterprince or something like that. That guy was a selfless, altruistic champion compared to these people.
My professors — not at any Ivy League-affiliated institution — used to tell me that I used too many rhetorical questions in my writing. When I asked them why this was a problem, they explained they weren't sure, but they had been told it was a sign of bad writing. Well, if they were telling the truth then both myself and the writers of The Magicians have a lot to answer for, since seventy percent of the dialogue in this thing is questions, and no one has the answers.
Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) is a white guy with big problems. Driving a car makes him nervvies, so he Narnia-enters a magic liberal arts college in upstate New York, Brakebills, to study magic. (The campus looks vaguely like Columbia.) It is emphasized that few of the students or faculty are very good at magic, except for a blonde woman named Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) who wears skirts that end at the midpoint of her thighs. Alice can't really act very well, so it is good The Magicians will write her off the show basically after the first season.
And there will be future seasons. Despite the fact that The Magicians spends a lot of time hinting at satire of C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling, holding back the criticism just enough to ensure none of the jokes are actually funny, The Magicians is at least better written than most of the trash that has made its way to the execrable SyFy network. This is maybe not saying very much.
The scenes with Coldwater at his school are pretty bad. Ralph is a good-looking fellow, but an incredibly low energy actor and he more whines than delivers most of his lines. He makes two other white friends and starts vibing with the blonde girl. No indication is given why any of these people care for him at all; he is the male Mary Sue and don't you forget it. In a much more amusing subplot, Quentin's muggle friend Julia Wicker (the super-charismatic Stella Maeve) is denied entry to his magic Cornell and starts learning these arts in a cult where tattoos mark the levels of achievement involved.
College and the process of education is not only ripe for satire, but this journey can also feature a tremendous amount of satisfaction for the viewer. Within moments of Quentin's entrance to Brakesbill, we are told that the university is not very important, the faculty are shit and no one has a terribly great grasp of what magic is or how to operate it. At least we got the sense that Hogwarts was an important place where lots of smart, important people walked the halls. Brakesbill might as well be a homeless shelter with a bar.
Even avoiding parody, The Magicians cannot succeed on its own enthusiasms. Magic in The Magicians is wacky, pointless, stupid and ill-defined. Without extended explication, we can never know what any of the stakes are in this battle over what being white and privileged really means. Recently, some universities revealed they were sending students to a white privilege conference, where they could fully fathom the meaning of their advantages. Some white idiot is always trying to do good and he ends up doing bad or worse, insignificant. This is the only moral of The Magicians.
In order to test Julia's magical aptitude, a white man locks her to a radiator in the women's bathroom of a bar where whites go to congregate. I am not joking, there are two people of color in The Magicians. The black character has his eyes torn out and the Indian-American named, for some reason, Penny (Arjun Gupta) experiences unprotected sex and summons a demon from an alternate reality. This is just in the first episode! Was this show executive produced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?
The only interest here lies in the future of Julia Wicker, who quite clearly should have been the protagonist of The Magicians. At her birthday, Julia thinks she is about to be raped in the bathroom by a guy (David Call) who looks like the genetic cross between Ryan Gosling and Peter Dinklage. He chains her to the radiator in the squalid restroom. She chafes at her constraints and breaks them. Her master is so impressed by this move that she is subsequently locked into a walk-in freezer in Brooklyn. Unbeknownst to Julia, her companion in the cold is the master of this coterie, a ginger woman (Kacey Rohl) who explains in a squeaky voice that she is impressed with her.
Julia is looking for some kind of meaning from life, since now that she knows there is magic, she no longer has the slightest bit of interest in Yale Business School. She ignores her white boyfriend and spends all her time brooding about how she wasn't accepted at the university Quentin Coldwater gained admission to after performing a few card tricks in front of the admissions committee. It's a good thing neither of them were Asian, Latino or black, since they would not have had chance at Brookbills to begin with.
"Until We Go Down" - Ruelle (mp3)