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The Magicians builds a better fantasy show by bringing realism to magic

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Syfy / NBCUniversal

In the 2000s, the fantasy genre saw a box office boom largely caused by the blockbuster success of the Lord of the Rings movies and the Harry Potter franchise. The drive to cash in didn’t work for everyone, though. It produced a lot of expensive failures and abortive franchises: Eragon, The Golden Compass, the Chronicles of Narnia films, the Percy Jackson series, etc.

But fantasy is making a comeback on TV. Game of Thrones’ success has ushered in a second age of fantasy adaptations, with two key differences: the stories are far more mature now, and instead of standalone big-budget movies, the modern fantasy revolution is happening in more serialized, long-form television series. And so we get shows like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Once Upon a Time, and Outlander, with adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, and Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles books all currently in the works. In short, American TV is embracing more hard realism in our fantasy fare, grounding magical elements in a solid foundation of real-world issues and problems.

Syfy's adaptation of Lev Grossman's The Magicians is part of this new wave of fantasy shows, and as the show begins its second season, it remains one of the best examples on TV today of adult-oriented storytelling that maintains the delicate balance between high fantasy and familiar reality.

The cast of The Magicians, with Sera Gamble, Lev Grossman, and John McNamara (center).

According to author Lev Grossman, the Magicians trilogy was written on the heels of the publication of A Game of Thrones, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and American Gods, novels he cites as setting the trend of grounding fantasy “in some kind of solid bedrock." The novels were also inspired by Grossman's childhood reading of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Grossman wondered "what it would be like to be a young person suddenly placed in charge of this magical kingdom with all these inhabitants," which Lewis glosses over as the book concludes. This question is the core of The Magicians and its sequels: how would familiar fantasy tropes play out in a real world, with characters as flawed and human as we are?

Season one of the show is primarily based on the initial chunk of Grossman’s novel, riffing on the Harry Potter franchise with Brakebills, a Hogwarts-like post-graduate university for magic, but with drinking, partying, relationship drama, and sex that feels truer to a real college than any of the dating drama going on at Rowling’s school. Season two moves to dealing with the real-world ramifications of the Narnia books, as the characters assume the thrones of the magical realm of Fillory. “I actually wanted to try to think about what’s [involved in] running a country,” said Grossman, “which seems an increasingly relevant topic these days.”

“We were extremely focused on what was happening during the election in a season that is a lot about the responsibilities and pitfalls of extreme power,” says former Supernatural writer and producer Sera Gamble. She and John McNamara created The Magicians for TV. They serve as executive producers, and have writing credits on all 16 episodes so far. “The show is always grounded in the characters,” she says. “Whether they're in Brakebills or in a bodega in NYC or they're literally on another planet, they're still themselves."

To that end, the show has taken considerable care in creating characters who feel genuine. While fans of Grossman’s novels often consider primary protagonist Quentin Coldwater particularly unlikeable, Gamble and McNamara view that as a strength. "One of the things that most threw us from the books is that sometimes something a character does is a little bit of a dick move, or they're just inexperienced, or they're selfish,” Gamble says. “But who among us isn't at times inexperienced and selfish?"

Another way The Magicians strives for authenticity is in its portrayal of characters with a wide range of sexual preference and gender, which Gamble credits as a result of simply trying to portray an on-screen world as diverse as the one they see in real life. Asked about new aspects of the show that interested him when compared to the original novels, Grossman said he found the addition of a love story for Elliot in season one "very affecting and very powerful," and something he himself had failed to do in the books.

“The books are primarily from Quentin's point of view. It's a deep dive into Quentin Coldwater,” Gamble says. “And a lot of the other characters, they're reflections in many ways of his relationship with them. But a TV show is different, especially when it's set up to be a kind of ensemble show. We get to spend more time with each character. We are required to flesh them out.” That means that instead of sidelining female characters, viewer get a truer sense of them as book characters Alice, Julia, and Margo get to tell their side of the story of their relationships with Quentin and other characters. It’s a welcome change from the narrow focus of the original novels.

"We always try to make sure that when we have more magic, we have more problems," McNamara says. In the world of The Magicians, it’s not enough to wave a wand and wish your issues away. Magic is less of a deus ex machina and more of a trigger for trouble, which feels like a realistic result to expect when placing phenomenal cosmic power and stewardship of a world in the hands of normal — that is to say, irresponsible and flawed — 20-somethings.

The desire to ground the show in realism extends to the production design and effects as well. One of Grossman's major goals while writing the series "was to present a more grounded, kind of technical version of magic," instead of the more "cartoony" representation often seen in films.

“It's important to us to capture the feeling that the magic is real and in the room with the spellcaster, and that it is affecting the atmosphere," said Gamble. She and McNamara ran with that goal, developing a visual language with Grossman for spell-casting on the show through a rhythmic hand-gesture system known as "tutting," along with a reputation for sending back FX shots countless times to ensure that the results look real. One example Gamble cited was the house-of-cards scene from the pilot episode, where the pair spent days trying to make sure that small details like dust particles in the air or creases on the cards were present to help ground the CGI effects.

McNamara and Gamble essentially have free rein to do as they please in the series, although Grossman is still heavily involved in it as what McNamara calls the show’s "god." Grossman’s Brooklyn residence is on the opposite side of the continent from The Magicians’ Vancouver sets, but he’s briefed on almost every step of the development process of each episode, from initial outlines to final drafts. But McNamara and Gamble aren’t beholden to his original vision. McNamara says the most important thing to him in developing an adaptation is in finding the truth of a character or storyline, and that diverging from the books’ "facts" is sometimes necessary to make the best possible version of the show. Ultimately, the two are very different media forms. "It will not do to just type up the books," he says.

As a show, The Magicians is still relatively young, and there's plenty of room for it to grow, both in Grossman's source material and the new storylines the creative team is adding. But as the opening episodes of season two have already shown, even as the plot turns toward fantastical quests and magical realms that would fit right in alongside Middle-earth or Hogwarts, McNamara and Gamble have a firm handle on the story’s real-world foundation. Magic stands out most when it’s surrounded by the mundane.