Saturday, March 26, 2016

'The Magicians': SyFy's dull, disappointing sexfest

I must admit that I'm a bit disappointed with SyFy's new series, The Magicians.

I really wanted to like this series, mind you. The premise is intriguing, and somewhat overdue: Brakebills University is a sort of Hogwarts for young adults, a college (as opposed to a grammar school) where magic is taught to aspiring young magicians.

I don't hold the producers of this show (nor the author of the book on which it is based) in any contempt for their obvious borrowings from the Harry Potter franchise. (By that logic, every vampire tale ever told would be a contemptible ripoff of Bram Stoker.) On the contrary, substituting young adults for children opened the way for numerous mature storylines that simply wouldn't have worked with Harry Potter's adolescents.

The problem is that the screenwriters of The Magicians have only one thing on their minds, really. There are a handful of attractive young actresses in this series (Stella Maeve, Olivia Taylor Dudley, etc.) and the writers seem to let no opportunity pass to portray them in various stages of undress. 

This often comes across as cheesy. For example, Dudley's character, Alice Quinn, is a nerdy, somewhat uptight young woman. The screenwriters, capitalizing on Dudley's physical endowments, have made her uniform consist entirely of plunging necklines and too-short skirts. I like attractive young women as much as the next guy, but it looks a bit contrived, an obvious attempt to capitalize on the adolescent "hot librarian" fantasy. (Oh, Alice Quinn compliments her sexy outfit with thick glasses. Groan.)

I recall a scene in a recent episode which began with Stella Maeve (cast as Julia Wicker) attired in an outfit reminiscent of Princess Leia's slave costume in The Return of the Jedi. In walked Alice Quinn (Dudley) and I said to myself, "I bet they're going to kiss." And sure enough, they did.

The screenwriters have picked up on the fact that magic rituals--both of the pre-Christian "neutral" variety as well as the darker black magic kind--often make use of sex. That's fair game, of course; but The Magicians sometimes involves entire scenes in which the characters do nothing but talk endlessly about the upcoming orgy (yes, really) or debate whether or not two characters can pull off a simultaneous orgasm to make a spell successful.

That would be fine, I suppose, if there were more...if the plots were better. But as Playboy recently discovered, sex has become so ho-hum in the permissive 21st century that it's no longer possible to make sex the sole attraction. You have to bring something more to the table.

A final word on the sex part: There are numerous same-sex encounters, often among characters who are fundamentally heterosexual. Conservative Republican that I am, I'm okay with movies that involve gay characters and themes. I thought that both Brokeback Mountain (2006) and Milk (2008) were decent films. But those two movies also had well-considered plots and strong writing. The sense in The Magicians is that the writers are using a kitchen-sink approach to sex: "Hey, viewers, here's an orgy!" "'s a bisexual ménage à trois!"

This is a shame, because, as I mentioned at the start of this review, The Magicians has a premise with plenty of potential. The young actors all do their best with the scripts they are given. Several of the characters, moreover, the aforementioned Julia Wicker, and Penny (played by Arjun Gupta) in particular, are complex and driven by competing motivations. Both Julia and Penny walk the line between good and bad--just like a lot of real people you probably know.

But the screenwriters of The Magicians won't let these characters test their outer limits with more compelling conflicts and situations. In their attempts to be "edgy" by overdoing the sex, the screenwriters of The Magicians have turned their show into a predictable and sadly mediocre product.

The Magicians Season 1 [Blu-ray]

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