It’s the turning point in a quest to bring back magic. Tension and uncertainty squeeze the air. And then as part of that quest, The Magicians’ cast starts singing a cover of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.”
You giggle at first, but as the characters passionately belt out the song’s beats, you’re moved to your core…and maybe flabbergasted at how such an improbably silly moment becomes a profoundly uplifting scene that brings everyone together to pursue a common goal with determination and pride. This is a slice of the unlikely balance at the heart of Syfy’s The Magicians. The first three seasons of the series, often described as Harry Potter for adults (which is true, but reductive), takes place in a world where some humans can be trained as magicians. The story, based on Lev Grossman’s Magicians book series, follows a group of students as they attend Brakebills University, a school dedicated to the practice of magic. But shortly after arriving at the school, the students learn the magical universe extends beyond Brakebills into other realms. That’s when stuff gets crazy. And if you’re not watching, you should be. Here’s why:
It’s a Group Effort
In season one, Quentin Coldwater was the primary protagonist of The Magicians, occupying a sort of “chosen one” role. But as the series progressed and the cast became more at home with their characters and each other, the series became more focused on the ensemble. Quentin, Alice, Penny, Margo, Eliot, Julia—they face threats as a team, each breaking into the light for the occasional solo. They find the most success when they stand together, but each character has an individual arc that doesn’t get lost in a blurry group story. No one’s growth is sacrificed for the sake of giving screen time to someone else. You have more people to cheer for and a strong chance of finding someone you identify with (especially as The Magicians cast is diverse).
They Confront Trauma
The Magicians never makes the mistake of forgetting or diminishing the trauma and mental illness its characters suffer. One character is sexually assaulted. Another suffers from depression. Yet another character loses what is essentially their soul and inflicts enormous pain upon others. And all of that is remembered and reflected in every episode, not treated as plot devices with no consequences. Everyone carries their burdens in every scene, whether it’s joyful or heartbreaking, as it would be in real life. They’re changed by their experiences, but they go on. Trauma and mental illness are constant companions, and this series understands how to portray them.
You Never Know What Will Happen
Like unpredictable zigs and zags? The Magicians regularly takes the script by the shoulders and points it in unexpected ways. The coldest being who has done nothing but antagonize the cast in small, insidious ways—death-by-a-thousand-cuts-style—can be revealed to have majestic and admirable traits in a shocking but completely believable fashion. This means Magicians isn’t the kind of show you can analyze and make theories about, because you can’t call where the narrative will land. Being surprised by feeling unexpected empathy, or even total disgust, is satisfying.
It’s Sexually Aware
Not many fantasy or sci-fi television series explore sex in a progressive, open way, but The Magicians does. It may be the most sexually aware show on TV. From the first season, the story has illustrated a wide variety of consensual adult relationships without judgment and has only improved with how it weaves them into the plot. No one blinks an eye at group sex or orgies. Casual intercourse, friends-with-benefits interactions, homosexuality, and bisexuality are all part of the story without ever being the focus or discussed as taboo acts.
On the other side, the series confronts pedophilia and sexual assault. They take time to stay with the victim of the latter and put the emphasis on her choices and feelings.
The Story Get Bonkers
This is a series that knows when it can take a day off and wallow in ridiculousness, a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Magicians addresses serious matters with the utmost gravity, but it also knows the bat-shit whimsical twists can get away with. More than that, the writers run into those twists with glee. The unfettered fun turns plot points that have no right to work into situations that make you dissolve into laughter. For example, in “The Cock Barrens,” a pivotal scene took place in a canyon full of rocks that looked like penises. Silly? Very much so. Hilarious because of the way the characters react to it? Very much so.
The Magicians excels at pairing the absurd with an earnest sincerity in a way no other series does. Don’t sleep on it.
The Magicians returns with season four on January 23.