Friday, March 31, 2017

The Magicians: TV's most improved show

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which just celebrated the 20 year anniversary of its series premiere a few weeks ago, is one of my favorite shows of all time.  It's a show that I don't make comparisons to lightly, but it doesn't seem like everyone else is on the same page in that regard.  Any show that's supernatural or fantastical, has a relatively large ensemble, and quippy dialogue -- even if it just has one of those elements -- gets slapped with the "Buffy-esque" tag.  Because I know how much evoking Buffy means to me, I treat it as a sacred cow, so as to not have anyone who go into a show expecting it to give them the same feelings that Buffy did, only to be disappointed when it doesn't live up to those claims.  So it is with great consideration that I make the claim that The Magicians, which is currently nearing the end of its second season on Syfy, is one of the closest shows to capturing Buffy's spirit since it ended in 2003.

The show has overcome the adaptation issues that plagued season one
The Magicians is based on Lev Grossman's bestselling trilogy of novels that were released between 2009 and 2014.  Equal parts Narnia and Harry Potter, the series told the tale of Quentin Coldwater, a high school graduate who gets inducted into a secret and prestigious magic school named Brakebills to learn to become a magician.  Along the way, he and the cast of characters he meets at Brakebills learn that magic is both more difficult and depressing than fantasy stories make it seem, as they're opened up to a whole manner of hardships.  It's a quintessential look at what would happen if kids series tropes were deconstructed through a harsh, adult lens.

Though it's a more grounded version of classic fantasy novels, The Magicians trilogy still has its fair share of the supernatural, so a TV adaptation was always going to make some concessions for budgetary reasons.  The issue with season one of the show, however, was that many of the adaptation choices were simple story and character decisions, very few of which were for the better.  Aging up the protagonists from college to post-graduate age felt arbitrary and completely at odds with many of the coming-of-age themes that were integral to the book series.  And while some of the plot reworking made sense -- taking a character's story from the second book and making it run in parallel with the rest of the throughlines of season one was wise and necessary for contract reasons -- others made the season feel rather disjointed and rushed.

Part of the reason why season two has been so wonderful is that it has been smarter about the way it adapts Grossman's novels.  At this point, it's pretty much past following the storyline of the books, crafting its own narrative that works but still feels in the spirit of the source material.  And yet it also manages to lightly hop back to little details of the books in refreshing and thoughtful ways.  Creators John McNamara and Sera Gamble have proven themselves to be smart adapters, and this season I've found myself consistently surprised by how they're able to weave elements from the source material into the deviated path they've gone on with the story.

It understands what made Buffy great -- the characters
Even in the lesser moments of season one, the show was buoyed by the strength of its ensemble, but that sense of its characters has gotten even stronger in the second season.  Like Buffy, though it has a serialized narrative, The Magicians is basically a hangout show, and an excellent one at that.  Every member of the ensemble is a fleshed-out character with a distinct function in the group, and so much of the joy of each episode is derived from watching them bounce off of each other.

Here's an experiment for you: Think of a TV show, and imagine any two characters on the show being paired off for a storyline.  If every combination is an idea that makes you excited, that's the sign of a great series that has put tremendous thought into sketching out its characters and their dynamics.  Buffy was one of the shining examples of that concept, and The Magicians passes the test as well. The show knows it too, as this season has had more instances of shaking up its usual subgroups and letting unexpected matches play out for a few scenes.  It has even added to the fun by boosting its cast of supporting characters to interact with the core members of the ensemble, which was already at an enjoyably high amount of seven.

What's great is that there's also an understanding that tension within the group is important to the strength of the show.  Though there are external conflicts driving the season, most of the compelling material of the season comes from internecine drama within the gang, where it feels like they're likely to rip each other apart at any moment.  There is so much history and animosity between various characters -- Alice and Quentin, Penny and Kady, Quentin and Penny, almost everybody and Julia -- and this season has had many of those plates spinning at the same time, to great effect.  That's why the best episode of the season so far was the seventh episode, "Plan B," where everybody was forced to come together to plan out a bank heist that would benefit each one of them in different ways.  Not only was it a fun little episodic caper, but it cashed in on the intricate web of infighting that had been weaved over the course of the season.

There's a deft balance of comedy and tragedy
One of the other things that made Buffy so wonderful was its mixture of playfulness and truly devastating emotional content, and The Magicians has followed suit.  It's one of the most fun to watch shows on TV this year, full of quippy banter and oddball fantastical touches.  But it can quickly turn on a dime, forcing characters to make tough decisions in high stakes scenarios that have lasting consequences.  The proportion of laughs and drama never feels improperly weighed in one direction either.  Sometimes it can blend both in at the same time -- villains, gods, and powerful beings have a sense of silliness while still seeming formidable.  It's that difficult balancing act that makes the show so exciting to watch week to week.

In this current age of television, there's so much to watch on a weekly basis that my watchlist tends to pile up quickly.  Much can be gleaned from how I choose to prioritize shows.  And here's what I'll say about The Magicians: it's always the first show I want to watch whenever I have the time.  If the unassailable "how quickly do I want to watch it?" test doesn't convince you of this show's merits, I don't know what will.

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