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The Magicians sets up an exciting universe where magic is real and deadly

Quentin Coldwater is in way over his head

Fantasy literature has demonstrated time and again that magic doesn't solve all your problems; in fact, it usually brings a host of new ones with it. That much is apparent in The Magicians, Syfy's adaptation of the trilogy of fantasy novels by Lev Grossman, which debuts tonight with a two-episode premiere at 9 p.m. ET.

Discovering that he can perform magic doesn't make our hero, Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), any less unsure of himself or his place in the world. And just like Quentin, The Magicians is still figuring itself out in the early going.

[Note: I wrote up my thoughts on The Magicians' pilot in mid-December, when Syfy aired it as a series preview. Check out that piece for my impressions of the episode and some general thoughts on the show.]

I've been told that The Magicians' 12-episode debut season will focus mostly on the first book, although in adapting the novels, the writers make one major change: They focus on both Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve) and Quentin from the start; in the source material, Julia's story is told in flashbacks in the second book.

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It's a smart decision that serves the TV series well early on. The Magicians gets a lot of mileage out of drawing contrasts between Quentin's life in the sheltered, Ivy League-esque learning environment of Brakebills University and Julia's comparatively dangerous education in amateur magic with New York City's "hedge witches." Learning magic upends Julia's life and ruins her personal relationships — especially her friendship with Quentin, who feels like she's encroaching on the only thing he's ever been able to hold over her. This leads to some ugly arguments between the two of them, and those conversations reveal some of Quentin's worst qualities.

"You're hanging out with a bunch of tweakers who are turning tricks for spells," Quentin tells Julia, making clear his derision for her work with the hedge witches. It's not a good look, even if it might come from a place of caring about his (former) best friend's welfare. The Magicians establishes pretty early that Quentin isn't always right, and that we're not always meant to side with him.

That's a key element of many coming-of-age stories: flawed characters who (hopefully) learn from their mistakes as they figure things out. Quentin's classmate Alice Quinn (Olivia Taylor Dudley), the most skilled spellcaster in their class, is consumed by her own desperate search. Eliot Waugh (Hale Appleman), the unofficial guide to Brakebills for us and Quentin, drinks his troubles away; he's joined at the hip to his best friend, Margo Hanson (Summer Bishil), and they both hide softer undersides with exteriors of mischievous detachment. Penny (Arjun Gupta) is mad at the world because he can hear everyone in his head, and he enrolls at Brakebills with the hope of getting rid of one persistent voice.

I said in my review of The Magicians' pilot that the episode focused much more on plot than character. By the end of the third episode, the show does a much better job of fleshing out its cast of magicians, tying together the Brakebills students with the urban hedge witches in a way that seems like it will lead to plenty of interesting conflict. And it's exciting to see a diverse array of actors in these roles, which Grossman never specified as being of a particular race; it would've been easy for Syfy to go with the default of casting white actors in parts such as Margo, Penny and Dean Henry Fogg.

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One weak spot in the writing is Penny, who is a jerk to Quentin seemingly because the show needed an antagonist on campus. And I've actually enjoyed the Julia storyline more than anything so far: She has a clearer, more obvious motivation than the Brakebills students, and the hedge witch scene feels exciting because it's so risky. Quentin is desperate in his own way — he's just trying to keep his head above water, since he really doesn't want to flunk out and go back to the world of Muggles.

The Magicians presents that world in cool, drab hues, making it look much less inviting than the warm campus of Brakebills. The school comes to life with the help of some terrific production design, whether it's magical instruments in the classroom or the patchwork interior decoration of the Physical Kids' cottage.

It remains to be seen how well The Magicians will continue to intertwine Quentin's and Julia's parallel stories and keep the other characters involved. But the show seems to be finding its footing more surely with each new episode, and for now, I'm hooked.

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