Syfy’s adaptation of Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” fantasy novels finally goes off-book for a wholly original story in its fourth season, and the result is just as spellbinding as ever. That’s not entirely surprising since co-showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara had already demonstrated their ability to play fast and loose with the source material, yet stay true to its magical spirit. Despite exhausting all of Grossman’s major plots, the new adventure continues the show’s inspired storytelling, which is both a vindication and relief for longtime fans.
Season 4 picks up directly after the cliffhanger, in which the quest to restore magic has been successful, but it’s now strictly rationed between the Neitherworld librarians. Also, Dean Fogg (Rick Worthy) has successfully saved the lives of his erstwhile Brakebills magic students with a spell that acts as a witness protection program. Although Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) hasn’t been affected, she’s in a jail cell, while Quentin (Jason Ralph), Julia (Stella Maeve), Kady (Jade Tailor), Margo (Summer Bishil), Penny (Arjun Gupta), and Josh (Trevor Einhorn) have been given new identities on Earth, but they’ve also forgotten their real ones. For all they know, they are their alter egos — even the guy known as DJ Hansel. Such extreme measures were necessary to protect them from a merciless shape-shifting creature known only as the Monster, who wants to exact revenge for their attempt on its life.
The first three episodes given to critics examine how or if the group of friends resolve this confounding identity crisis in the face of their own ignorance. While it’s an engaging puzzle — one that involves a clever explanation of how those new identities were conceived and adds a wink to Grossman’s novels — it’s also unsettling to observe the familiar group of friends stripped of their usual chemistry, like the nicknames, shorthand, and inside jokes. Even more disorienting is the Monster taking the guise of Eliot (Hale Appleman), whose actual whereabouts are unknown in this new world order.
While the actors have proven they’re game for any challenge, from impromptu musical moments to learning sign language, Appleman as the Monster is a revelation. Never once does he backslide into Eliot mode; instead, through subtle shifts in tone and expression, he becomes the Monster wearing an Eliot suit. This makes his actions even more disturbing as he forces Quentin — whose new identity is a bookish professor named Brian — to be his playmate in murder and mayhem. When the Monster wants to play, woe to those who don’t comply. His retaliation is swift and brutal.
In the Monster, “The Magicians” has created yet another character who wields unlimited power yet lacks morality and impulse control. At first this feels like a familiar retread, and comparisons to certain real-world politicians could even be drawn (always fertile ground for “The Magicians”). However, the show also attempts to give the Monster some dimension with a backstory of neglect and possible abuse. Adding in his childlike behavior and intense desire for a friend, a picture of loneliness and desperation begins to form.
This more empathetic reading of the Monster by no means excuses its behavior; and this brings to mind another monstrous character Gamble brought to life: “You,” which recently moved from Lifetime to Netflix, stars Penn Badgely as Joe, a bookstore clerk who takes horrifying measures to be with the object of his affection. Like the Monster, he rationalizes his behavior because it’s done in service of a noble cause; in his case it’s love, for the Monster, it’s companionship. This is the ultimate danger of a privileged mindset: to elevate one’s wants and needs over the basic rights of others.
While the Monster is an extreme example, “The Magicians” always explores the shadowy sides of its characters, even its heroes. It’s unafraid to live in the grey, and a stormy grey at that. Our heroes consistently face difficult choices, and they don’t always choose the high-minded ones. In the third episode, Kady makes a choice bound to have disastrous repercussions, but given the temptation, her actions only make her more relatable. Each of the group has caused pain and sorrow, and in some cases, the decisions these characters make are downright villainous. Ruminating on ethics and the nature of good and evil is just part and parcel of “The Magicians.”
Despite all of this grimness, “The Magicians” is still the funniest fantasy show on TV because it’s incredibly self-aware. It acknowledges the ridiculousness of its magical trappings — especially its strange gods and whimsical puns prevalent in the magical realms — and then pushes them to their bizarre extremes. In the scene from the premiere below, Margo encounters the god Ember… and lots of kittens.
The shift from casual brutality and saving the world to goofy moments with talking animals (and then back again) is why “The Magicians” continues to be such a critically acclaimed show. Its cheekiness isn’t making light of the serious moments; it’s coping with them. By the third episode, the show establishes enough of the season-long arc to have a little fun. The Brakebills gang find themselves somehow working together in a delightful storyline reminiscent of “Oceans 11.” In particular, Quentin plays a major — and hilarious — part in the operation, but by episode’s end, he must face a grim reality that is made more heartbreaking in contrast to all the levity that came before.
If anyone had any apprehensions about “The Magicians” creators striking out on their own with original stories, Season 4 demonstrates they are still firmly in control of their narrative and tone. This genre-busting show has set itself apart from the usual fantasy fare and more than earned its recent Season 5 renewal. It’s Narnia, but with more sex and punchlines; “Harry Potter” but with more time travel and betrayal; “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” but with more singing and, uh, bestiality. OK, that may not be a good thing, but at least the show knows how to command attention and raise questions. “The Magicians” is provocative, entertaining, perturbing, and sometimes messy. But it is never boring.
”The Magicians” Season 4 premieres Wednesday, Jan. 23 at 9 p.m. ET on Syfy.