We begin really nicely showing off the CGI and pretty magic realm and two characters being nicely ominous
Unfortunately they’re being slightly ominous in a very very ropey way. Apparently there’s something big and scary coming, time is running out and they need someone young to save them all
Yes, it’s amazing how many times the world needs to be saved by completely ignorant, untrained teenagers rather than experienced professionals. Funny how that works out
So to out Gary Stu Chosen One – Quentin Coldwater (really? Really? Quentin? We’re going with that?) In classic style he is, of course an outcast and misunderstood and isolated and sad and he’s even taking medication for depression (don’t get your hopes up – this isn’t a case of a disabled protagonist – it’s the woo-woo looks like mental illness trope). Y’know, just once I’d like to see a misunderstood outcast character who didn’t look like they could work as a model. Outcasts don’t usually look like that.
This show does have a very CW-ish everyone must be gorgeous feel to it.
Anyway, Quentin is obsessed with magic and a childhood fantasy book called Fillory while his friends try to convince him to grow up and join the real world. Except, not surprisingly to anyone, magic turns out to be real and there’s even a school to teach potential students this: Brakebills
Let’s be clear now that naming things is not one of this series strongpoint
Brakebills works by magically kidnapping potential students, throwing them into a room and demanding they perform a written exam (which, for some bewildering reason, they actually do rather than yell “what the hell is this and why is the writing moving and oh my god what did I drink?! Did you drug me?! HELP POLICE!”). Quentin-our-definite-chosen-one passes with some nifty CGI (the effects are damn good) which impresses Headmaster Dean.
This leads to a brief introduction of the school where people are sorted into different groups according to their magical specialty which at least makes more sense than mind reading millinery.
We also have the introduction of the 80 squillion characters
Elliot, older student who is sarcastic
Margo, older student who likes fun (also one of the show’s three POC)
Penny, (a man despite the name) student who hears voices (second of the show’s three POC) and has floating sex with Kady
Kady, student who has floating sex with Penny
Alice, over-achieving serious, studious girl who I am really trying NOT to compare with certain over female characters in similar franchises
Julia, the character I actually want to be the protagonist – Quentin’s long suffering childhood friend who keeps trying to support his awkwardness
James, Julia’s boyfriend and Quentin’s best friend who is quite normal as far as I can see
That’s a lot of characters which means a lot of them simply cannot be developed, no way.
Julia has her own plot line – she’s also tapped by Brakebills but doesn’t pass the test. They try to wipe her memory but she is pretty extreme in trying to remember, cutting her arm to remind herself it’s real, it’s not a dream. While Quentin (presumably) attends classes and leaves the mortal world she drives herself to studying magic, convinced she has talent – she even shows off some sparks to Quentin. He tries to talk her out of magic and being all mundane which I suppose is a complete role reversal since she tried to do the same to him – the difference being she knows magic is real
She is noticed by yet another character, Pete who runs some kind of underground Magician society. Through a really unnecessarily rapey scene (I get that to make a new magician tap into their powers they provoke an extreme emotional response – but Qunetin got a teacher shouting at him while Julia got stropped and tied up and menaced with rape? Even if you wanted to make the point that the underground witches were harsher you could have had them threaten her with literally anything but rape).
Julia’s storyline promises to be far far far far more interesting than Quentin’s.
And at the school we get a heavy dollop of ominous. Firstly, there’s an entire year of 20 people that has been decimated down to four. Common with magical universities everywhere in fiction, it seems Brakebills expects a certain percentage of their students to face mortal danger. Really, magical schools are badly in need of health and safety legislation.
Ominous continues from the opening scenes, including Julia and Qunetin finding a body and another book in the linked Fillory books (the body was apparently due to diabetes and oreos combining in an unwise fashion but I doubt it). Quentin also keeps having dream moments where a character from said books, Jane (Jane, Julia, James? Pick another letter please. Apparently Margo was Janet in the books so the TV writers noticed this was a problem as well) appears to say ominous cryptic things to him.
Y’know, I don’t know about anyone else but I reckon one of the top necessities for an important warning would be “clarity.” It must be up there with “speed” and “getting to the right person”. I’m sure important warnings should not be delivered in cryptic-ese.
In one of these dreams Quentin ends up with a symbol branded into the palm of his hand. In any sensible reality he’d show this to a teacher – but this is tv world and no-one ever shows anything to experts who may actually fix things. Instead he takes it to brainbox Alice who decides it’s scary and super important but also that she need to keep on being cryptic for REASONS.
Also they need to have a séance in the middle of the night with a stolen book. For REASONS. Alice wants to contact her mysteriously murdered brother who no-one talks about.
No, really, Quentin goes along with this in the hope that Alice may possibly tell him why, rather than saying she can steal her own book and GOING TO SEE A PROFESSOR.
Penny and Kady also join the séance because the voices in his head tell them to. Of course they do. Absolutely no-one here considers that holding a séance in the middle of the night in our world is unwise, doing it in a world with proven magic is positively suicidal.
Nothing seems to happen – of course – but we get an ominous smiley face in the condensation of a mirror. No, really, that’s a damn scary smiley face right there. Whatever other flaws the show has it has excellent atmosphere and effects.
This may or may not be why we get the big bad appear – in class all the clocks stop, everyone is frozen (but aware, their eyes move which is really well done). A man covered in moths – or maybe made of moths – sets the creepy bar to maximum (again, really well done – just the way he moves is creepy). He then kills the teacher
When Dean, the headmaster, runs in to throw magic to save them, the bug monster kills him – by ripping out an eye and drawing a bloody smiley face (by the way, that’s the third POC and yes, he’s dead in the pilot. Yes, yes he is).
Again, it’s really really creepy and well done. Of course the monster then focuses on Quentin because he is the chosen one.
Ok, first episode… and I don’t dislike it. Wow, how is that for lukewarm praise? I didn’t dislike it – it’s just so very very very tropey. I’m not even going to make the very obvious comparison with other shows because I don’t even think that’s fair – magic school + Chosen One are such done tropes that I don’t think anyone can be singled out as being the originator or a copier. It’s not that this would be necessarily bad but I really need to see something more original than that. Magic School, Big Ominous Threat, lots of Cryptic clues, and Magical Chosen One with Social Awkwardness who didn’t even know the magic world existed five minutes ago but now everyone requires him to save the world – this has been done. I’ve seen this, I’ve read this in various different forms
I’m not hating it, I am interested in seeing more, it could get a lot better – but at the moment, I’m not seeing anything particularly new or interesting except Julia’s storyline. Maybe if more of the eighty squillion characters get developed a bit more we’ll see something new emerge.