Alibi V.25 No.3 • Jan 21-27, 2016 

Idiot Box

Slight of Hand

“The Magicians” on Syfy

The Harry Potter novels were great and all, but they didn’t have nearly enough sex. (I’m fairly confident internet fanfic will back me up on this.) That’s probably because the main characters were under the age of puberty for most of the series’ run. But novelist Lev Grossman found an easy workaround for that little problem when he published his opportunistic book series The Magicians. In it, a not-so-young teenager is unexpectedly accepted to a mysterious college for magical arts in upstate New York. This allows the characters to do more or less exactly what Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwart’s did—only with a lot more drinking, partying and inter-gender fraternization. Now Syfy has snapped up Grossman’s IP for a weekly series, and the results are ... more or less what you would expect.

Floppy-haired boy band hunk Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph from “Manhattan” and “Madam Secretary”) is a shy, self-doubting nerd who prefers to lose himself in a Chronicles of Narnia-esque fantasy book series called Fillory and Further—despite the fact that he’s clearly outgrown the kids’ book premise (grown-up Harry Potter fans, we’re talking directly to you here). Imagine Quentin’s surprise and delight when—out of the blue—he is accepted to a secret grad school known as Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Turns out not only is magic real, but you can get a master’s degree in it!

Faster than you can say “abracadabra,” the preternaturally talented Quentin and his new group of wizarding friends—bookish Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), slutty Margo (Summer Bishil) and swarthy lady-killer Penny (Arjun Gupta)—are sitting in on lectures about alchemy and spellcraft. Occasionally, the school’s colorful instructors have clandestine conversations about a secret, evil “Him” (who must not be named) and intimate that our boy Quentin is somehow special (one might even say “chosen”).

Unfortunately, “The Magicians” doesn’t spend a lot of time world-building. Instead of turning Brakebills and its residents into believable, fleshed-out creations, the pilot more or less takes the premise (magical college) as a given and rushes ahead with the storyline. Even so, “The Magicians” is a slow-starter. There are a few intriguing suggestions (such as the idea that the fictional world of Fillory and Further probably isn’t so fictional), which will hopefully develop as the season goes on. At first look, however, the magical intercourse, curse words and severed eyeballs that mark this as an “adult” series don’t come frequently enough. Production values are decent, but hardly diverting.

Maybe it does “The Magicians” a disservice to constantly look on it as “Harry Potter for twentysomethings.” Until it comes up with a more original idea, however, audiences are probably stuck with the unflattering comparison.

“The Magicians” premieres Monday, Jan. 25, at 7pm on Syfy