Be warned, we're told in the first episode of Syfy channel's The Magicians: This adventure is no fairy tale.
Indeed, although it follows a young man navigating his way through magic school, The Magicians - with its references to cocaine, hookups and gory violence - is hardly kid stuff. Based on the book trilogy by Lev Grossman, the franchise has naturally has prompted many comparisons to Harry Potter - Grown-up Harry Potter! Sexy Harry Potter! Harry Potter on acid! - but its jaded, irony-drenched tone makes more like the unapologetically bitchy '90s cult hit The Craft.
Jason Ralph stars as Quentin Coldwater, a young man being yanked unwillingly into adulthood while still obsessed with the fantasy books Fillory and Further. He is depressed and socially removed, applying to Yale to meet the societal mandate to put childish things away. "All the fantasy stuff is an excuse to tell stories about real people," said executive producer Sera Gamble at the Television Critics Association gathering Thursday. "Magic is just a lens that lets us see who he'll become."
One day, he is transported to Brakebills, a school for people with magical powers, where he's tested for his magical prowess. Best friend (and probable love interest) Julia (Stella Maeve) is also invited to test for the school, but unlike Quentin, doesn't get admitted. Their paths diverge: he's ushered into a new, confusing and complicated college full of psychics, wizard cliques and cool parties. Julia, however, is steered in another direction, establishing tension between the two as reluctant forces for good and dark, as well as confusion and clarity.
"What's so cool about this show is that the characters are realistic," said Maeve. "They're flawed. What's different about Julia is that she does decide to go down a different path. It might be dark and destructive for a time. What drew me is that nothing in life is perfect. You can relate with them." As in real life, she said, her character is not always likable, or even understandable. The point, though, is to show her truth and journey.
That, more so than the special effects and rules that characterize the genre makes The Magicians compelling - the push-pull between the fairy tales we embraced as children and the cubicles we inhabit as adults. That said, producers said they intend to be faithful to the books, with a few minor turns. (Some of the first episodes, Gamble said, incorporate stories from writers' college experiences.) Executive producer John McNamara said they have enough material for six seasons.
The Magicians is self-aware and slightly subversive - a take on the genre that explores the disillusionment of growing up. Or as Dean Henry Fogg (Rick Worthy) puts it to Quentin in the first episode, the "pointless miasmic march to death you call life." His antidote? "Do some goddamned magic!" It's here that Quentin discovers he's something of a prodigy, and we see magic as practical - a tool, not a solution.
"There is no quick fix," said Olivia Taylor Dudley, who plays Alice Quinn, Quentin's friend and fellow magician. "When they get stuck in a dark place, magic is there to help. But it's who they are that gets them out."
The Magicians premieres Monday Jan 25 at 9/8c on Syfy