Thanks to #PeakTV, SyFy’s “The Magicians” is unfortunately often swept under the rug when we talk about excellent fantasy dramas right now. It is the ideal pick if you’re looking to unwind and engross yourself in a fictional world full of magic and surrealism. It’s also perfect if you want a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously and in doing so, has become one of the more stronger, fascinating, and self-actualized TV dramas out there.
It breaks barriers with its stellar cast that includes series regulars Arjun Gupta and Summer Bishil plus recurring star Rizwan Manji. Three actors of South Asian descent play complex and incredibly fun characters on this show wherein they aren’t defined by their ethnicity. Beyond them, too, “The Magicians” has become a mirror for the current society. Native-American actress Stella Maeve plays one of the leads. The recent third season saw trans actress Candis Cayne in a pivotal role. Oscar winner and deaf actress Marlee Matlin has recurred since season 2.
The show is based on Lev Grossman’s novel of the same name. Ever since the first season premiered in December 2015, every passing season has been wackier and better than the one before it. It’s third season, which aired its finale this week, was no different. They even gave us a musical episode featuring almost the entire cast. Luckily, SyFy has already renewed it for a season 4, which will premiere in 2019.
“The Magicians” is essentially about a group of friends who always find themselves on the brink of a world-ending problem. It is centered around the students of Brakebills University where they are taught how to skillfully use their magic. Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) is the new student who immediately befriends the inseparable duo of Eliot Waugh (Hale Appleman) and Margo Hansen (Bishil).
Gupta plays William ‘Penny’ Adiyodi, Quentin’s roommate who is mostly indifferent to everyone around him except Kady Diaz (Jade Tailor), his on-again-off-again love interest with whom he develops a real connection. Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) is maybe one of the most powerful students in the school. Then there is Julia (Maeve), who doesn’t get into Brakebills and in order to pursue magic, befriends some hedge witches who take her down a dangerous path.
Together, all of them form a band of misfits who are battling various mythical creatures, evil Gods, all-knowing fairies, and a villain with moths for a face. Amidst all this chaos lies Fillory, this show’s version of Narnia, a fantastical world that beckons each of these characters in different ways. If it sounds incredulous, it’s because it is. “The Magicians” revels in the glory of being peculiar. No one comes baring labels, whether it’s their racial background or sexual fluidity. It’s all normalized and accepted with ease, giving way to the show’s storylines to move forward seamlessly.
To me, “The Magicians” struck a chord not only for its ability to do bizarre so well but also because I saw multiple actors who look like me in a sci-fi show. They weren’t there to fulfill some checklist of diversity casting. They are simply the greatest fit for their characters.
Summer Bishil, who is part Indian and part Mexican-Caucasian, plays one of the most bold and badass characters I have seen in a while. Bishil, whose previous TV credits include “Lucky 7,” “90210,” “iZombie,” stands out in her layered performance as Margo on the show, a role that was tailored perfectly for her.
Season 1 firmly establishes Margo as a sassy, supremely confident magician but the character shines when she unexpectedly become one of the rulers of Fillory in season 2. She has to engage in politics, make crucial decisions, and take part in negotiations. All of it brings out a maturity and tenderness in her we hadn’t seen before. This is further cemented in season 3 when she is crowned as the High King. Bishil, by the way, looks glorious in all that royal attire.
Margo is also one half of the show’s greatest relationship. Her friendship with Eliot, to whom she is fiercely loyal, makes for the most entertaining scenes. Both of them are easily the brightest light of this fantasy drama, providing A+ zingers and dropping pop culture references like they’re paid to do it. This flawless season 3 premiere moment proves it.
Then there is Penny, played by the master of the eye roll, Arjun Gupta. Penny’s evolution from reluctant and grumpy to compassionate and very simply put, sweet, is noteworthy. He is a ‘traveler,’ someone who can jump across places, worlds, and even dimensions, giving him more leeway to be part of some interesting plots. This lets Gupta show off his range as an actor. This is especially evident in season 3 episodes like “Be the Penny,” wherein he’s in between worlds, helplessly trying to let his friends (who don’t see him) know that he’s not dead just yet. Or during the final episodes this season when he gets to play a different version of Penny.
In a season 2 episode, they address his ethnicity in a very tongue-in-cheek manner when Quentin, in a parallel universe/dream state meets Penny but only this time, he has the stereotypical Indian accent. When real Penny notices it, he immediately calls it out. To be honest, that’s why I am most interested in more of his backstory, mainly because whenever Penny gets standalone episodes or scenes that solely focus on him, Gupta pulls it off well, growing into the role with every passing episode. He has appeared on shows like “How to Get Away with Murder” and “Nurse Jackie,” and hosts a podcast called “American Desi” with comedian Aakash Singh. I cannot wait to see where his career takes him next.
Indo-Canadian actor Rizwan Manji is fairly well-known because of his work in “Outsourced,” “Mr. Robot,” “Schitt’s Creek,” and movies like “Tiger Hunter” and “Dr. Cabbie.” However, his role in “The Magicians” is most amusing. He plays a character called Tick Pickwick, who is a reluctantly helpful assistant of sorts to the rulers of Fillory, in this case Margo and Eliot. All his scenes are usually literally laugh out loud funny. This is because both, the writing and Manji’s dialogue delivery is remarkable. No one knows they need a Tick Pickwick on their screen until one comes along.
“The Magicians” is a powerful show because it approaches the whimsical in full force without losing a grip on reality somehow. They end up tackling issues like sexual assault, addiction, depression and grappling with death. The show doesn’t shy away from LGBTQ and interracial romances. They know how to keep you emotionally invested in their characters, throwing gut punches and curveballs our way. “The Magicians” is perhaps, deep down, a reflection of what the world is really like. Only it’s a world with magic.