Shortly before their New York Comic Con panel, the cast and crew of Syfy's "The Magicians" sat down with the press, discussing the upcoming series, its source material and how it fits into the ever-expanding landscape of genre television.
Based on Lev Grossman's bestselling fantasy trilogy, "The Magicians" follows the lives of grad students at Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy, a secret school in Upstate New York specializing in magic. Sera Gamble (writer, executive producer), John McNamara (writer, executive producer), Jason Ralph (Quentin Coldwater), Stella Maeve (Julia), Olivia Taylor Dudley (Alice Quinn), Hale Appleman (Eliot), Arjun Gupta (Penny) and Summer Bishil (Margo) offered insights into the development, themes and direction of the new series, which premieres in January.
Apparently, it all started with one of the world's biggest online shopping sites. Asked how she learned about the novels, Gamble said, "Well, Amazon recommended the book to me, because I read so much stuff like this, and I fell in love with it. I was obsessed with it. But at the time, the property wasn't available… Cut to a couple of years later, we're in a meeting with our now-partners, Michael London and Janice Williams, and they mentioned this property, and I completely flipped out… [John McNamara and I] optioned it with our own money and wrote it on spec, because we love it."
Gamble and McNamara's passion extends beyond themselves. "We've populated the writers' room entirely with people who came in and said, 'I read these books, I love them, I really want to work on this show.' And they turned down really lucrative jobs to do so, so I believe them."
McNamara added that Grossman is "very involved," giving script notes, weighing in on casting and watching some cuts of episodes.
The cast, too, is excited by the source material. "It's everything. It's our Bible," Bishil said. "We're avid fans of the books," Maeve agreed, "We want to flesh them out and make them real."
However, even with passionate creators behind it, it can be difficult for a fantasy show to distinguish itself in today's genre-heavy television landscape -- but the cast and crew are confident that their show can and will stand out among the rest.
"I think that it's easy, because Lev created stories that are so different," Gupta said. "He takes the tropes of fantasy, he takes the rules of that world, and really flips them upside down."
"It's a lot more grounded in the reality that we live in," Dudley agreed. "'Harry Potter' is in such a fantastical place, and this really just feels like real people dealing with real problems. It's 2015, and magic is just a part of what we're doing.
"It's the best of both worlds," she continued, "like getting to do an indie film where you cast spells."
"[The trilogy] really straddled humor and gravity well," Bishil said. "That's the tone that we're trying to achieve in the series. Sometimes it's funny when you mess up horribly with magic, and sometimes it's devastating."
Ralph explained how "The Magicians" subverts common ideas about magic and those who wield it. "That's a common notion -- this idea that, 'If I had magic, I would able to solve my problems.' That's how Quentin goes into this world, expecting that that's how it would be. It turns out that's not how it works.
"In our advertising, they're talking about magic as a drug, and in a way that is true," he continued. "In a non-romantic, in a non-fun way, we go towards drugs to cover up things about ourselves and to try and make things better. At first, it feels great, but in the end it makes it more complicated. You've been ignoring all the things that you should be addressing as a human being."
Appleman and Bishil see similar attitudes to magic in their characters, with Bishil explaining, "[Margo] does not resist any desires or temptations… She believes that [magic] will fix all of her ills and struggles." But while Margo uses magic to indulge, Eliot uses it to ignore. "Eliot is not necessarily honest with himself about his problems," Appleman said. "Entering Brakebills has saved him from his past, but he's also very much trying to avoid it, and he's filling a lot of voids with as many vices as he can find."
In bringing the novels to television, Gamble and McNamara have made some key changes. While the first season draws primarily from the first book, the writers will also show Julia's arc, revealed in the second book, concurrently with those of the characters at Brakebills.
"It's had a very interesting effect on the season," Gamble explained. "It very much sharpened what was going on with her and Quentin. Whereas before he was just like, 'I don't know, I got in, I wish I could help you,' that's antagonism, now. That's best friends with a real rift between them."
They've also made the characters older. While this was mostly a tactical decision, Gupa pointed out that stories like "Harry Potter" or the Narnia books are "always about coming of age. And I think that the age of 'coming of age' in our society at this moment in time is later, now… in the mid- to late-twenties. Putting the show [in grad school] is actually even more reflective of the time and society that we live in."
In Grossman's trilogy, one of the keys to practicing magic is the use of exhaustingly intricate and precise hand gestures. To capture that feeling, the cast works with Kevin Shazam, a choreographer and "tutter."
"Yes, that's a profession," said Bishil.
"Finger tutting is a kind of dance that's a very intricate sequences of hand motions," Appleman explained. "It's all about angles and hand positions. It's very comparable to the way that Lev describes magic in the books, so it's a perfect fit.
"Each character has a different relationship to magic, and a different set of hands," he continued. "We're trying to individualize our own specific styles as much as we can as well. Eliot makes a spell differently than Alice, different than Quentin, different than Margo. "
And those differences are important, helping the cast define their characters for themselves as well as for the audience. "Regardless of if there's a green screen or special effect," Maeve said, "I still, as Stella, as Julia -- am going through the actual motions and making it as real to me as possible."
"The Magicians" premieres in January on Syfy.