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The Magicians' promising pilot draws you in with its setting more than its characters

"Do some goddamn magic!"

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Lev Grossman's beloved Magicians trilogy of fantasy novels succeeded largely because of its author's incredible world-building skills. The pilot of The Magicians, the new Syfy series based on the books, does a great job translating that universe to the small screen, but doesn't fare as well in populating the world with characters to care about.

[Note: The Magicians doesn't premiere until Jan. 25, but Syfy aired the pilot in full as a "preview" tonight. Below are my thoughts on the pilot, which is the only episode Syfy has provided to critics thus far; I discuss some basic plot developments, but not spoilers per se. Expect more closer to the premiere. And in case you're curious, I've read the entire trilogy, but I won't be chronicling all the differences between the show and the books.]

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Jason Ralph as Quentin Coldwater

Our window into the world of The Magicians is Quentin Coldwater, a sullen-faced young man who's in the midst of applying to graduate school when we meet him. (The TV series ages up the characters a few years — the books begin with Quentin and his friends as high school seniors.) Quentin is on medication for depression, and he's desperately searching for some meaning in life; you get the sense that he's going to grad school as a matter of course, because it's something to do rather than something he actively wants to do. Instead, he seems much more at ease when he's snuggled up with the Fillory and Further books, the fantasy novels of his childhood.

Quentin's best friend, Julia, accompanies him to an interview for Yale, which is where things get interesting. Both of them end up going through the looking-glass straight onto the campus of Brakebills University, a magic school in upstate New York that swaps Hogwarts' Gothic architecture for the Colonial style typical of American colleges. Quentin passes the entrance exam and performs magic for the first time when pressured by Henry Fogg, dean of Brakebills; Julia fails the test, and has her memory of the experience wiped before being sent back to the real world.

The visual style of The Magicians draws sharp contrasts between the two settings. The show's version of New York City is draped in muted hues, whether it's a beautiful brownstone or a dilapidated warehouse. The Brakebills campus is much more bright and colorful, with a verdant quad outside and warm, welcoming decor inside the dorms and classrooms.

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Stella Maeve as Julia

This plays an important role in telling the parallel stories of Quentin and Julia, who are easily the show's most interesting and well-drawn characters. At Brakebills, Quentin feels like he's finally found his purpose in life; Julia, whom the school rejected, is haunted by the magical life she missed out on.

"I can't just go to Yale if I know this place exists," she says, pleading with a Brakebills professor for a second chance at the entrance exam. Julia is possessed by a dogged determination, and it consumes her as she searches for a side door into the world of wizards and witches.

Back at Brakebills, The Magicians introduces four of Quentin's classmates: the too-cool-for-school Margo (known as Janet in the books) and Eliot; the overachieving Alice; and the perpetually angry, aloof Penny. They exist in the pilot more as archetypes than characters, which is OK because, well, it's only the pilot. Yet the episode spends so much more time going through plot points rather than character development that the weight on the former over the latter is worrisome.

In fact, the pilot, "Unauthorized Magic," flies through much of the first book in its 51-minute span, which left me puzzled about how much ground The Magicians' writers are intending to cover across the 12 episodes of its first season. I'm also wondering if the rapidly paced plotting will confuse viewers who aren't familiar with the books. Either way, the pilot ends with one hell of a cliffhanger that seems to make a major departure from the novels, so those who finish the episode will be likely to stick around for at least one more.

Syfy seems to be aware of that — the network will premiere the first two episodes of The Magicians back to back, starting at 9 p.m. ET on Jan. 25. After that, the show will air Mondays at 9 p.m.

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