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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Magicians: Season One (Blu-ray)
The Magicians: Season One (Blu-ray)
Universal // Unrated // July 19, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $44.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted August 14, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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The Season:

From "Chronicles of Narnia" and Suzanne Cooper's "Dark is Rising" sequence to the celebrated wizarding world of J.K. Rowling, the concept of drawing people from our normal existence into a coexisting, hidden reality where magic is is possible has enjoyed a long history of popularity. Yet, all these properties have one thing in common: despite a few darker elements involving the machinations of adults, they've all revolved around children whimsically learning the ropes of sword and sorcery, limiting the narrative's thematic and emotional scope to that of one that young readers -- and viewers -- can safely enjoy. It leaves one wondering how adults would handle the situation: how they'd use the elemental powers given to them, how they'd comprehend that they're uniquely gifted in comparison to normal humans, and how their gifts would impact the kinds of relationships and moral barometers they'd develop amongst other magic-users. In short, what would an adult, mature-oriented "Harry Potter" look like? The Magicians, a familiar, flawed, yet compelling new television series, provides one possible answer.

Instead of being trapped in a closet, college graduate Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) endured stints in mental institutions before discovering the world of magic. His fascination with the realms of fantasy, notably the setting of the "Fillory and Further" series of novels he read in his youth, have distracted the intelligent, promising young man from developing stronger social skills whenever he was out, limiting his friends mostly to those who hang out with his bestie from his youth, Julia (Stella Maeve). Shortly before their entry into ivy-league graduate schools, both Quentin and Julia are secretly whisked away to a magical location where they learn of the existence of another kind of school: Brakebills University, one in which the childhood friends are uniquely qualified to apply for acceptance. Quentin gets in, jumping headlong into the dangerous and confusing world of the metaphysical. Julia, on the other hand, doesn't make the cut, forcing her to cope with a life where she knows magic exists but she cannot formally participate.

No, the setting for The Magicians isn't going to enchant anyone with the lack of imagination on its surface. Brakebills University serves as an older-aged hybrid of Hogwarts School of Magic and Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, complete with pre-sorted "houses" dedicated to certain concentrations and a wild invented sport driven by magic. Some of the characterizations follows a similar pattern to other properties, too: Quentin, our tragic main character, arrives with zero knowledge of the world of magic -- aside from his obsessions with the in-universe series of books -- in a place where everyone else has some grasp on their capabilities, and he befriends a book-smart, buttoned-up savant, Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley). The headmaster, Dean Fogg (Rick Worthy) is a bald, handicapped man who pursues other gifted youngsters to join their school, and so on and so forth. Just as Divergent distilled Harry Potter and The Hunger Games into its own spin on the genre, so too does The Magicians combine the bones of J.K Rowling's universe with the comic-book flesh of the X-Men franchise. Hell, the show even references someone going "full muggle" at one point.

What distinguishes The Magicians lies in the maturity of its diversions from the young-adult trappings, many of which rely on the connection between the fantasy realms and the real world. While the show gets carried away with the freedoms that mid-college adulthood affords the storytelling -- the booze, the sex, the at-times overt vulgar language -- it also delves into the psychology of what it's like to be someone with extraordinary gifts and to realize their capabilities above the limitations of humanity ... or, in certain cases, how all this magical ability still can't fix humanity's mortal problems. The classes and culture of Brakebills aren't terribly absorbing in and of themselves, somewhat halfheartedly fleshed out around the audience's in-built assumptions of what a "magic college" might look like, yet the narrative within still draws one's attention with how these students discover themselves and progress with their potential. Quentin also isn't the effortless hero one might expect of a story like this, instead a clumsy, underwhelming guy who constantly struggles with his mental illness and grasping what kind of magician he's supposed to be. And, frankly, he's hard to like at times because of it, but that's okay.

Despite how much of The Magicians operates around the moving parts of the college, arguably the most interesting thing about the show comes in how those who are rejected from that magical world are forced to go about living their mundane lives knowing that other-worldly capabilities are real. That's where Julia's side of the story comes in, as well as the idea of underground covens of magical practitioners -- hedge-witches -- in the real world whom teach themselves how to do practical yet effective spells, drawing a unique contrast between roundabout "classical" education and direct "real-world" teachings. Julia's effort to overcome rejection, to cope with how her close-friend Quentin was accepted into that world, and to keep her renegade magical pursuits hidden from those around her takes shape into a novel piece of storytelling, capably driven by Stella Maeve's weathered yet determined poise between light and dark arenas of magic use. This side of the story wouldn't exist if the universe's much talked-about spells involving memory removal were, y'know, effective, but the resulting conflicts in the human world make it worth rolling with those punches.

The Magicians largely works in building its world and establishing the nuances of interesting characters, but not so much in tying these elements to an overarching conflict driving the first season. Granted, this introduction to the world should dedicate its energy to nailing down the general personality of the show, from the breadth of magical abilities and the rules and rituals surrounding Brakebills to the notion that the realm in the "Fillory" series of novels might actually exist. Abrasive, yet soulful students like Penny (Arjun Gupta), a loose cannon who can travel anywhere, and Kady (Jade Tailor), a powerful student with questionable allegiances, are given ample opportunity to evolve around the scope of the setting, as are the amplified personalities of the heads of the "Physical" magic house, the flamboyant duo of Eliot (Hale Appleman) and Margo (Summer Bishil). With all this going on, however, the story devotes less energy to the threat against these tenuously balanced worlds: a powerful, murderous being shrouded in moths and mystery. The ominously vague presence gets spread too thin across this first season, dragging down the momentum.

That's excusable, though, because The Magicians stays invested in something beyond a traditional villainous conflict. Boasting strong performance and production values, the show continues to use the presence of magic as a vehicle for drama instead of being merely a tool against evil. As the schooling/training sessions progress, episodic conflicts arise, and bonds organically form and break between the students (and the hedge-witches), the characters deepen and become more intriguing with each flaw and merit they reveal about themselves ... and it often has little to do with magic, beyond it being the common thread tying them together. From curing illnesses and bottling up emotions to belief in higher powers, The Magicians touches upon novel talking points for its personal conflicts, adding thematic layers atop the magical foundation where it wasn't required. It pursues a more expressive vein of storytelling involving the realm of the mystical, and that's welcome in measured doses.

Later on, The Magicians does eventually concentrate on that looming threat that needs to be resolved by our collection of fledgling magicians, yet the narrative grows haphazard and more prone to knee-jerk, oddball exploitations of the premise as it closes in on higher stakes and suspense. The writing also wreaks havoc on the likability of the characters in the process, leading to peculiar personal decisions and happenings that color one's impression of them -- and not in a "oh, they're flawed and interesting" kind of way -- as they're pursuing solutions and banding together as a unit. Convenient enchantments, time-travel, and warped realities all start to pile atop one another in a chaotic finale that's equally active and exasperating, taking a detour deep into the twisted woods of how dark this material can get. A satisfying ending this isn't, undoubtedly needing another episode -- season -- to resolve a bleak and monumental cliffhanger, but I guess that's what can happen when material about magic, destinies, and heroes veers away from fairy-tale safe zones into the realm of mature fantasy.

The Blu-ray:

Universal Home Entertainment have conjured a fairly standard but worthwhile Blu-ray presentation for The Magicians: Season One, packaged in a standard three-disc blue case. On the outside, a lenticular slipcover features a levitating body surrounded by books; on the inside, an episode guide can be found on the interior artwork underneath the three silver-topped discs. A Digital HD slip has also been included on the backside of an advertisement for the show's return in January, 2017.

Video and Audio:

Each disc of The Magicians' Blu-ray release copes with at least three hours of material on each one, carrying between four and five forty-five minute episodes. It's unsurprising that the high-definition transfers -- all framed at 1.78:1 in 1080p AVC packages -- look solid but not without a few digital flaws. The series is a colorful and varied one: some scenes are vibrantly shaded and richly lit throughout the campus of Brakebills, while shots in the "real world" and elsewhere are shrouded in cold, slate blues and grays, often dim and dusty for effect. No matter which of each that the series adopts, the shading remains quite impressive. Blue moths, purple garments, and green foliage are strong yet not overbearing in brighter sequences, while dim reds and brows are lushly visible in interior shots of the Physical home-base. The soft pinks of skin tones, the purple-red of blood, and the pale green of fabric emerge beautifully from the colder sequences. Details in fabric, hair, and visual effects are sharp enough, but there's digital flatness and some graininess one can spot throughout. Everything's properly attractive and adequately projected in high-definition, just with a few caveats.

Similar comments can be made about the range of DTS-HD Master Audio tracks for The Magicians, which cast quite a spell with the full surround stage. The constant bass-driven pulse of the score and the fluttering of moths are but one example of how the depths of the track are utilized, sprawling across the channels and using the lower-end frequency to phenomenal effect. Slick sound effects involving the casting and after-effect of spells -- from wobbling bottles and rustling paper to slashed and seared flesh -- are sharp and aware of front-channel separation, while very subtle effects like the trickling of blood and the tapping of glass on wood are pronounced in the lingering stillness of the air. Dialogue is always clean to the ear, ranging from moderately muffled in response to natural surroundings to razor-sharp in the confines of interior locations. There are moments where it sounds less like a high-definition track and more like broadcast-quality with its fidelity, but considering the number of episodes on each disc, they all sound splendid.

Special Features:

Along with extensive Deleted Scenes available on each disc and a Gag Reel on Disc Three, The Magicians arrives with a pretty standard making-of featurette about the show: The World of The Magicians (13:31, 16x9 HD). Topics bounce between recapping the characters and plot, the show's visual style, the digital effects, and the mysteries behind the head villain. Generous clips are spread between behind-the-scenes shots and interviews with most of the primary cast members, as well as series creators Sera Gamble and John McNamara.

Final Thoughts:

The Magicians answers the call for a contemporary fantasy show about modern-day, relatively matured users of magic, centered on a graduate school for "the arts" and the gifted individuals who have been admitted to the program ... as well as those who weren't accepted. The world created by the series operates around a derivative premise, and some of the show's characteristics persistently echo those influences. What makes the show worthwhile comes in how the series deliberately breaks away from recognizable elements and into the more adult-oriented tone and themes, one that doesn't shy away from getting dark and gritty wherever needed, nor does it avoid framing the main character, Quentin, into the same kind of unremarkable, questionable main character from Lev Grossman's books. Sometimes, the freedom to explore more mature themes of adulthood under the umbrella of a magical settings works really well, especially in the show's parallel story about Julia and the hedge-witches of the human realm. At other points, the show tries too hard to exploit that freedom with its sex and booze and grotesquery, especially once the fantastical action ramps up in the final episodes. It's an intriguing first season with a rough ending that desperately needs a second to answer some major, brutal questions left in the finale, which undoubtedly doesn't stand on its own. Mildly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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