For readers seeing this on Pen and Cape Society, let me preface this with the fact that I know the show involved isn’t a superhero show. However, there has been interest in the writing process I and my colleagues in the Society follow and this article speaks to mine: namely how I deconstruct all the media I consume in my head to learn from them—even the unfathomably bad stuff.
So a couple of weeks ago, I spent the better part of the week in a hotel room due to the blizzard we had here. As per usual, I had access to cable where I don’t normally have it, as well as high-speed internet.
When this happened a couple of years ago, I wrote a post on what I learned from SyFy original movies. I also had a raft of praise for Sci-Fi’s original serial programming. Warehouse 13, Lost Girl, and Eureka have become favorites and I had nice things to say about Continuum and at least Being Human was just boring and had some potential.
So when I discovered I was just in time to watch the premier of a new SyFy original series, The Magicians, I was excited. After all, for me SyFy had a winning record of fun stories, interesting plots and lovable characters. And this was about a wizarding college! It’s as close to a Superhero School as we’ve gotten (ignoring that awful Generation X pilot) thus far, so there was nothing but optimism when I saw the ad for the rerun of the premier.
That optimism… was… misplaced. Sorely misplaced.
Much like my foray into the original movies from last year, this is thankfully a teachable moment because seriously this show did so many things wrong that it is a master class on screwing up on a level with my old, hated foe, Ghost Ocean.
Normally, I would put this in the form of a Let’s Watch, but 1) I don’t have a link to the episode that can be linked here and 2) I… really, really don’t want to watch it again.
Yes, it’s that bad. At least to me. Feel free to argue with me in the comments, but for now, allow me to make my case.
First off, the premise here is actually pretty good. Basically, it’s Harry Potter but college and on a barebones level, it works. Granted, the boarding school setting of Harry Potter is damn close to college anyway, but upping the maturity level of the students provides different dynamics. It’s a good idea that I haven’t happened upon yet (yes, please offer your recs in the comments).
Getting there is where it all goes to hell. The core problem is that someone on the writing staff is operating under strict ‘show don’t tell’ protocols plus trying to milk the mysteriousness of the magical world. What results is a mess of obfuscation and riddles that overpowers the narrative and helps the writers completely ignore their worldbuilding.
The worst is the opening where the dean talks to… some women? We the viewers have no idea. They talk in riddles about some evil coming and the dean seems to think nothing they do matters—not because this evil is so baddass, but… because. No, seriously, he gives no explanation.
Also the proof of this is a dead moth. A moth, which we’ll see, could not possibly be hanging around wherever that woman was. But anyway, despite it totally not mattering, according tot he dean… he’ll try and prepare the students for this evil.
Spoilers! He doesn’t. As far as I can tell (and as we will learn, time is a sick joke in this show), only three days into class, the evil thing is released… by the goddamn students. They let him out without the dean doing anything but getting the main character (who is pivotal to his release) into the school.
This means that whole scene was utterly worthless. It could have been excised from the show completely and made no difference.
Here’s the deal: you can get away with a pointless scene, but not a worthless scene. A pointless scene doesn’t serve characters, worldbuilding, or the plot. A worthless one is a scene that appears to have a point but is invalidated in its entirety later. For example, when two characters are discussing preparing for an event that wouldn’t even happen if it wasn’t for their own stupid actions.
But I’m not even done with that stupid opening. The first bit of magic we see if the dean opening a door on a semi-busy street and entering it from a beautiful wooded glade. A nice effect, but later we find out that they even mind wipe failed magic-using students to keep secret. So… what’s keeping people from looking in the door and seeing a huge forest where the building’s interior ought to be? Only a few seconds later, the guy is in a hurry to hide the dead moth, but not the obvious portal.
This is a serious error in world building if you stop and think about it, and it isn’t addressed. Hell, it comes back later when we find out that washed out students are mind-wiped and dropped back in the world with powers intact—what the hell is keeping them from using their powers openly?
Well nothing. We see one using her powers in obviously unsecure areas and another guy who may or may not be a washout attacking someone with his power with zero consequences.
Here’s the thing: if you insist on having a setting with secrecy as a major plot point (and it is here), you don’t get to have people ignore that without something happening as a result. There has to be a reason both for the secrecy and for why that secrecy hasn’t been broken. Here, neither of those is presented and that secrecy is not enforced even though they try and make a show of enforcing it.
Which brings me to the most damning thing: the characters.
Well, the two characters this story seems to have. On the one hand, you have the main character and one or two others who are wide-eyed and confused about all this but still going along with it with zero hesitation. Then everyone one else who isn’t a plot device is a disaffected teenager or possibly Gen-Xer.
These are the kind of characters who are too cool to, say, emote beyond boredom going through their routines in a null state, thinking only of drugs and sex without seeming to find any joy in either.
I’m not sure whether to blame the writers, director or actors here, but the performances are lifeless as dead fish for most of them and the main character’s female friend starts of fun and interesting and fun but after she washes out of the magic test to get into the college she gets all mopey and obsessive and then her performance becomes flat, so this is probably a director thing.
It utterly ruins the two characters presented as the main character’s new college friends though. Just take this line: “Let’s go find something magical to smoke.”
Now that would sound like it was a funny line, indicative of a type of guy in these stories that’s an awesome party animal or snarky stoner.
That line is delivered in the same blank-eyed boredom as someone being told they were going to go watch Quantum of Solace. ALL of his lines are delivered that same way, even when he invited himself and… the girl who I’m not sure is his girlfriend or not and whom I don’t remember saying more than three lines… to the main’s friend’s birthday party.
This is a character who should be fun, but is woefully not thanks to poor usage of tone. Now, this again might be a problem with the director or actor, but writers can also fail at setting the proper tone. It’s one of those things you can’t even judge for oneself, and need someone else reading your writing to figure out, but it’s incredibly important—so important that it’s the cardinal sin of this show.
Speaking of characters, let’s talk about the series Myth Arc.
It’s apparently centered on an in-universe book series (which is amusing because this was based on a book), which is turning out to be real. I gathered this from TVTropes because the only hints we have in the actual show are a clock in a tree showing up both in a ‘shot’ from the book and on the college’s campus… and an annoying asshole girl who is a character in the books, but also talks to the main character in scenes that could easily be illusions or hallucinations.
There’s no real mystery, nothing really unfolding or anything like that. The book just seems to show up now and again and is connected to the main character and his friend, who got him into it.
Needless to say, this is a just plain terrible way to start a myth arc. You’re supposed to want to learn more about a Myth Arc. You’re not only supposed to be hooked into learning more about the Myth Arc when it’s introduced., but it’s also meant to hook you into the rest of the series.
Here… here… -sigh- All I really have to latch onto in terms of the arc is this terrible character from the book and the more I see of her, the less I want to see of her. She is a complete asshole to the main character and sets him on the path to unleashing the evil thing at the end of the episode.
Speaking of which, I can accept that he pilot episode for something like this is going to be mostly set-up and character stuff with the villain taking a back seat. That does not excuse having a lame, out of context villain.
Called ‘The Beast’, this guy is supposedly coming to get the main character. Asshole book girl tells us so just before pointing him right at the means of summoning the thing. Despite talking about it a lot, it is never described or discussed beyond the fact that it exists and is coming like GRRM’s winter. So it comes completely out of left field when a séance that the main character not only had to be pointed toward but then needed the help of fate and powers to achieve—BRINGS THE GODDAMN THING INTO THE WORLD.
I cannot for the life of me figure out how in the high-holy hell this seemed like a good idea to the writing staff beyond the originality trap. Maybe, maybe this was meant to be a twist, but when taken altogether, it makes no sense. If the main character was needed to bring the thing about (and we know it’s this thing because it has a head surrounded by moths… because reasons. Screw this show, seriously.), why bring him in? How did the woman get a moth if he wasn’t around yet? Why did asshole book girl warn the main guy of danger and then hurl him directly into said danger that he wouldn’t have been in without her?
Have I mentioned I hated this show?
Oh, by the way, this thing comes in about five minutes before the end of the show, manages to paralyze everyone instantly and houses the dean without effort. All while being a guy in a suit with moths fluttering around his head.
Granted, this ends on a ‘to be continued’, but given that the guy could freeze-frame everyone and win with zero effort, I honestly have zero faith in the writing team to make whatever saves the main character for the rest of the series not a deus ex machina.
And this, in the end, is the ultimate lesson a writer can take from this: the contract you have with the audience gives you certain leeway with artistic license, style, and even missed opportunities. They are trusting you to tells your story that way you want but to do it in a satisfying and sensical way.
However, that’s a finite amount of fuel to burn. When you keep doing things to annoy or alienate you the audience—such as by presenting obtuse scenes that end up not mattering or patently unlikable characters—you can run out very quickly and you won’t have any left when you really need that benefit of the doubt. Case in point, presenting a powerful bad guy and banking on the audience being excited to see how the characters escape.
Well in this case, I can’t. I’ve stopped caring. In fact, seeing as the main characters surviving would mean more asshole book girl and vapid friend dude… I kind of don’t want them to. And that is never a place you want to be as a writer of anything.
At the end of this, what can I say? For one, I do hope they tighten up the series after the second part of the premier. Goodness knows I’ve seen (and even featured in my Let’s Watch segments on my blog) shows that were better than their pilots, so there is hope.
That sad thing is that the writers and director of the show are largely unaware of these problems. In the age of social media, they may be getting an earful, but that doesn’t mean they’ll learn. All of us who do the writing thing have our blind spots—even me. Especially me.
But that’s why I do this. It’s not to tear down the show or insult the people who worked hard on it or those who like it. It’s the look at a work for what it is and see if there are things I can learn or apply to my own work—to ask myself honestly if I’m doing any of these things.
As should we all.