If Harry Potter decided to get a higher education in wizardry after finishing his studies at Hogwarts, his graduate alma mater might look something like Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. That’s the institution at the centre of a new American fantasy series, The Magicians, which premieres in the UK on 5Star this week.
Produced by Universal Cable Productions and airing on Syfy in the US, The Magicians is based on a novel of the same name by Lev Grossman. The story focuses on Quentin Coldwater (played by Jason Ralph), an odd, reclusive twentysomething who is invited to enrol at the aforementioned college on the basis of his talent for magic. Grossman’s novel is the first in a series that also includes The Magician King and The Magician’s Land. These stories expand the mythology in the original book, which encompasses wizards, witches and alternate universes. You need no prior knowledge of the source material to get into the TV series, though, says The Magicians’ co-creator, Sera Gamble.
“You don’t have to have read the books by any means to enjoy the show,” Gamble tells Geektown. “I think the books can be enjoyed on their own and the show can be enjoyed on its own or you can do both.”
With its school of magic, a male central character who has been recruited because of his aptitude at spell casting and a scary villain, The Magician’s premise has obvious echoes of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Rather than deny these similarities, however, Gamble jokes that they are Rowling’s fault.
“For Lev, the idea for The Magicians came because he was waiting for the next Harry Potter book that was taking too fucking long!” she says. “So he kind of did this thought exercise that was instantly appealing to me when I read the books. I think it’s something that a lot of people do, which is to apply the tropes of a fantasy story to your own life.”
Two factors that separate The Magicians from Harry Potter are its urban American locale and the older target audience. Although the show was filmed in Vancouver, the setting is New York, which, in itself, produces an edgy vibe. That is amplified by occasional scenes of violence that are more intense than anything depicted in even the darkest Potter movies (for example, someone gets their eyes ripped out and dropped on a table in the series premiere). Having older characters also means that the issues underlying the personal drama are more mature.
“In the case of Harry Potter, it’s like, ‘OK, there are these kids who have magic and they have the problems of heroic children’,” explains Gamble. “Then the question is, what would this be like in actual current day New York City among older people who have the problems of everyday adult life? What does magic mean in that kind of circumstance? That was one the core ideas that The Magicians was borne out of.”
The result is a series that doesn’t present the illusion of being something wholly original. Rather, it puts a different spin on a proven concept. That approach has been popular enough to get The Magicians a second season renewal, perhaps because many Potter fans who have grown up with the boy wizard are now looking for his adult equivalent. “The inspiration of Harry Potter was a knowing one and was one that I think those of us who really love Harry Potter enjoy because this is kind of an adult story,” says Gamble. “It’s a story for us now. It doesn’t have the same kind of black and white ideas of good, evil, destiny, heroism. It kind of takes that through the blender of adult life when everything gets much, much more complicated and sort of less easy to chart.”
The Magicians premieres on 5Star on Thursday, May 5th at 9pm.