SYFY’s The Magicians Perfectly Channels the Millennial Experience
What TV shows do you think capture the spirit of the Millennial generation the best? The self-absorbed hipsters of Girls? The intricately layered, obscure humor of How I Met Your Mother? You’re The Worst? Master of None? If I named The Magicians, SYFY’s bonkers fantasy series about magic and alternate realities, would you believe me?
The Magicians, adapted from Lev Grossman’s trilogy of novels, has a genre-standard premise at its core: Quentin, a lonely young man, discovers that he possesses magic powers, is whisked away to Brakebills University learn to use those powers, and discovers that Fillory, the magical land he read about in children’s books, is real. But here’s the catch: Brakebills is no Hogwarts, and Fillory is certainly no Narnia. Instead of nurturing, quirky professors and youthful hijinks, Brakebills is full of the kind of brusque professors familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a liberal arts course and cynical students who partake in casual sex and drugs. Instead of talking animals and clean-cut morality, Fillory is full of dark magic and darker secrets. The series wryly recaps itself in a late-Season 3 line:
“Just imagine, a montage. A group of fine-looking grad students were invited to a secret school for magic, where a bunch of stuff happened that doesn’t really matter until they ran into a mysterious figure. An answer to a riddle they didn’t even know to ask.”
Millennials were raised on all the fantasies of the past: Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, epic tales of small people who changed entire universes by their steadfast goodness and persistence in the face of blatant evil. But we’re also the generation raised on Harry Potter, a series that presented children with a world in which evil was evil but cooperation with evil was even more insidious, and in which adults often dropped the ball and left the youth to grow up too fast and fix everything. As others have pointed out, that became a blueprint for how to survive our current world. We were raised on a steady diet of magical lands and empowered youth, but then we were tossed into horrifically turbulent times and found out that the world is nothing like we were told it was going to be. So, we became a generation of snarky, sexually liberated, overeducated activists, brimming with cynicism but still a touch of magic and hope.
No other fantasy—indeed, I would argue no other current pop culture story—understands this as deeply as The Magicians, as evidenced by how it quickly turns its would-be stereotype characters into some of the most nuanced on television. Its ostensible protagonist, Quentin, struggles with mental illness in a viscerally real way, oscillating between unending delight at every new magical discovery, even three seasons in, and vicious disappointment and self-loathing. Alice, the studious “good girl,” surprises everyone by breaking the rules within a few episodes just to find out what happened to her brother, and then proceeds to break more rules over the course of three seasons than anyone. Fabulous Eliot, always ready with a quip, finds himself having to dig into unknown depths within himself when he’s thrust into leadership. In what is possibly the most dramatically fascinating arc of all, Julia, an uptight human with hints of magical power, transforms from a self-driven magic seeker, to a sufferer of trauma, to a literal goddess, all the while trying to clamber out of a really, really awful hand that life has dealt her.
Every character is hyper-intelligent, with the seemingly contradictory combination of lazy boredom and sheer brilliance that will be familiar to any kid who was shoved into a “gifted” program. They speak in a hilariously self-aware vernacular that manages to be socially conscious, mildly pretentious, ridiculously nerdy, and comically raunchy all at once. See: an early episode in which Quentin has a sex dream featuring both Alice (dressed as Daenerys Targaryen) and Julia (dressed as slave-Leia), and the dream-Alice interrupts, “If you would just shut up for about ten seconds, this sex dream would pass the Bechdel Test.”
One of the driving plotlines of The Magicians has always been the relationship of magic to Fillory and to our own world, and inevitably, it is always a disappointing mess that these novice magicians have to clean up. In season one, our heroes learned that Fillory was real, but was also a site of many horrors that ejected a depressed, abused boy and led him down the path to becoming the Big Bad. Then came the gods, the great hope – who turned out to be much more like Greek or Norse gods, with their bickering and selfishness, causing more problems than they solved. It’s not hard to see the parallel to the younger generations of today, feeling like they’ve been left a mess to clean up.
Through it all, the characters (and the series itself) manage to continually walk a fine line between full-fledged cynicism and a wacky, self-aware sense of humor. Millennial humor is the same way: a bit dark, gleefully doing a tap-dance on the lines of social propriety, and often satirical, but rarely cruel and even more rarely “punching down.” Razor-edged humor has become the weapon of choice for millennials and teenagers alike to deflate the structures and attacks that originate with members of older generations. Even Harry Potter got in on this years ago—the spell for banishing a boggart, essentially a fear demon, requires making the source of fear into something laughable.
Too many works of fiction depict millennial humor and frustration as entitlement, apathy, or both. The Magicians understands that humor and sarcasm aren’t signs of apathy or taking things lightly, but rather are a means of dealing with a world that is nothing like we were told it should be. It is, in many ways, a function of self-care: when we stop being able to laugh, we’ve truly lost hope. So The Magicians builds elaborate running gags around Taylor Swift songs and conversations held entirely in pop culture references.
The Magicians manages to take itself very seriously and not seriously at all, with a cast full of young people whose education only sort-of prepared them to take on a world that is much tougher than they were told it would be, and who instead have to try their best to help each other along. If that isn’t a portrait of the current generation, I don’t know what is.
(image: Jason Bell/SYFY)
Amanda Prahl is a playwright, lyricist, and freelance writer with regional and university theater credits, bylines on HowlRound, BroadwayWorld, Slate, and PopSugar, and strong opinions about Doctor Who. Follow Amanda on Twitter @storyologist_ap.
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