Rarely do you see a show so specifically tailored for a cable channel and its audience demographic as Miles Millar and Alfred Gough's Shannara Chronicles, which makes it ironic that the MTV series is effortlessly surpassed in what it presumably wanted to do -- make a world of magic accessible to a relatively casual contemporary viewer -- by Sera Gamble and Sean McNamara's The Magicians on SyFy. It's not just that Magicians is set in the present day, since Shannara bends over backwards to make its postapocalyptic setting as nearly contemporary as possible. The crucial difference is that Shannara tries to bend Terry Brooks's characters and concepts into a cliche of modernity, while Magicians, adapting Lev Grossman's trilogy of novels, relies on superior writing and acting to develop several strong, distinctive personalities who feel modern because they feel real. Shannara ends up a mirror of MTV's own fantasy of youth, while Magicians, for all its purposefully derivative trappings, is becoming a uniquely character-driven fantasy show, and the best new genre program of the 2015-16 TV season.
The Shannara Chronicles approximately adapts Brooks's novel The Elfstones of Shannara. Some time after a cataclysmic event destroys human civilization, once-fantastical species have evolved from man, the dominant species, apparently, being the elves. Culturally, on the show at least, the elves are much as you and I, only with pointy ears. The show begins on a note of progress as Princess Amberle (Poppy Drayton) becomes the first female to pass the grueling endurance test to become a guardian of the Elcrys, the magical tree on which the well-being of the elf kingdom (ruled over by John Rhys-Davies) depends. Progress comes too late, it seems, since the Elcrys is dying, and that puts the kingdom in danger of invasion and annihilation by hordes of demons. The druid Allanon (Manu Bennett), Brooks's badass Gandalf, reports that the cure for the Elcrys can be found in distant Safehold. After most of the Elcrys guard is massacred, Amberle takes up the quest to Safehold, accompanied by half-elf Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler), a descendant of the hero of Brooks's earlier novel The Sword of Shannara. Wil possesses the mighty Elfstones, which get him out of many a jam but tax him physically, as all magic does to its wielders in this world. Along for the ride is Eretria (Ivana Baquero), a human Rover i.e. a brigand initially tasked by her leader and adopted father (James Remar) with stealing the Elfstones so she herself won't be sold into slavery. Meanwhile, Allanon has magical skirmishes with the big bad and mentors an elf with powerful and potentially dangerous abilities, while the elf king is murdered and replaced by a changeling in league with the demons.
MTV took on Shannara presumably because the success of its Teen Wolf series showed its audience had an appetite for genre stories. Just as Teen Wolf evolved into something far different and darker than its comic namesake, so Shannara became something quite different from Brooks's Tolkienesque fantasy. As already noted, the crucial decision seems to have been to underscore the postapocalyptic element of the fantasy world far more than Brooks ever has, to my knowledge. You are constantly reminded that the world of elves, gnomes, etc., was built on the ruins of our world, and the ruins often are shockingly well-preserved, given how much time presumably has passed in order for new species to evolve. In one episode our trio find the ruins of a 21st century high school, with many of the posters on the walls and other artifacts intact. In another, a human colony has salvaged artifacts of the distant (?) past and can generate power to play 21st century music for parties that clearly are meant to look inviting to the MTV audience. In other respects the show strives for contemporary relevance. As commentary on bigotry seems necessary again, we get a storyline involving elf-hating human hunters who take pointy ears as trophies, and in general interspecies mistrust exist to a greater degree, so I'm told, than it does in the novels. Relevance and accessibility are the twin goals, the latter theoretically achieved by having the elves and so forth talk in 21st century slang and idiom and by foregrounding the main heroes' romantic triangle and objectifying all three characters as sex objects. Shannara delivers much of the same soap opera many genre fans identify angrily with the CW network, but takes it to a shoulders-and-sheets level CW rarely indulges in. Add to all this an honest effort at fantasy action on a somewhat epic scale -- Manu Bennett often seems to be taking part in an entirely different, possibly cooler show -- and you get an overcalculated mishmash designed to please all-too-specific demographics without any real organic creative evolution. After Into the Badlands showed what Millar and Gough are capable of when they aren't pandering to a specific audience -- unless you can define an AMC demographic for me, that is -- Shannara was doomed to disappoint me. In its defense, while I compare it to the stereotype of a CW show it never really blunders into the kinds of stupidity that renders some CW programs infuriating, while it managed to maintain a dramatic momentum that other, more promising shows (e.g. The Bastard Executioner) never really attained. Its main problem -- perhaps a fatal one -- is that it was compromised by its choice of venue in a way that shouldn't be possible today. My presumption is that a Shannara Chronicles on a different channel would have been a far different thing, everything else remaining equal, but maybe I'm wrong.
On SyFy, The Magicians is part of an attempted renaissance through which the former Sci-Fi Channel hopes to reclaim the respectability it enjoyed a decade ago, when the rebooted Battlestar Galactica was one of the vanguard shows of a perceived new golden age of television, before the channel sold its soul for sophomoric laughs by making "SyFy Original" a byword for self-conscious, bad-on-purpose schlock. If SyFy's other new shows are as good as Magicians the channel is well on its way to redemption. It follows the parallel journeys of two friends from childhood, Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) and Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve). As kids they were fans of a Narnia-like fantasy fiction series about the magical realm of Fillory, but Julia has outgrown that stuff and urges Quentin to do likewise. Almost by accident each wanders by a different path into an entrance exam for Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, which I could swear is somewhere around here in upstate New York. Quentin passes the exam and is admitted to Brakebills, while Julia flunks and, according to routine, will have her memory of the exam wiped away. She improvises, however, and cuts her arm as a mnemonic device that overcomes the forgetting spell. As Quentin gets used to life at Brakebills, a campus increasingly under attack by a horrific power known as The Beast, Julia becomes obsessed with learning magic independently, falling in with an underworld of "hedgewitches" and embarking on a roller-coaster ride of brief epiphanies and nightmarish disasters. Since she clearly has considerable talent and possibly tremendous potential, you're left to wonder why Brakebills rejected her, why Brakebills has the authority among magicians it appears to enjoy, etc. But Magicians doesn't indulge in the paranoid fantasies (yet at least) that would render Brakebills itself suspect; the faculty's intentions appear benign, its concern for discipline sincere and necessary given the violence magic is capable of. If there's no clear why for Brakebills having no place for Julia, that's because the show doesn't offer simple answers for anything. Its lead characters grow increasingly complex as we go on, and while some people have objected that none of the main cast is likable, I think the show has gone quickly beyond a dependence on likability in its development of some of the most interesting personalities on genre TV.
At first glance, the high concept of Magicians is "adult Harry Potter" in several respects. There's sex, yes, and there's also a brazen amount of smoking, boozing, drug taking, etc., all without judgment from the writers. Leaving all that out, the students at Brakebills are not children, nor are they stock fantasy types. Along with Quentin, who, defined by his neuroses and obsession with Fillory, is arguably the least fleshed-out character on the show, we get to know his eventual girlfriend Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), the most studious and driven of the students, a gorgeous nerd who's socially repressed as a rebellion against her parents' orgiastic lifestyle and obsessed over the fate of an older brother who attended Brakebills; Penny (Arjun Gupta), who despises all trappings of fantasy (especially the Fillory novels) despite his own obvious talents and strives defensively to maintain a too-cool arrogant attitude even as he discovers his dangerous power as a teleporting Traveler; Eliot (Hale Appleman), at first glance the perpetual undergrad, dissolutely easygoing, omnivorous in his sexual and intoxicant appetites, under whose snarky demeanor -- he seems on first impression the most like someone you'd find at Hogwarts -- run deep, dark waters that surface when the Beast forces him to kill a lover; Margo (Summer Bishil), Eliot's BFF ever since they had to strip and reveal secrets to each other in an undergrad rite of passage, who often comes across as a Mean Girl in spite of herself and whose emotional neediness emerges as Eliot's attitude darkens; and Kady (Jade Tailor), who becomes Penny's girlfriend but has to flee Brakebills when her ties to hedgewitches (her mother's one) are exposed and ends up (as of the most recent episode) collaborating with Julia and a group of elite, relatively ethical hedges, in an attempt to summon a god. Even if Quentin seems shallow among them, Jason Ralph conveys the depths of the character's conflicts and confusions, supported by a formidable ensemble of young actors. The writers match the actors by constantly imagining original stuff for them to do as they learn more about magic in general and the dark truth behind the Fillory novels in particular. Of genre shows I watch only The Flash can compete with The Magicians on the high-concept level, and the speed with which Magicians opens up its fantastic universe -- apparently telescoping events in the first two Grossman novels drastically -- while keeping it all comprehensible (or comprehensibly mysterious) is arguably unmatched. I get a greater rush of vital novelty from each episode than I get from any other program, including those I still consider this show's superiors. Best of all, however freely the show adapts the novels, you never feel that Magicians is pandering to specific demographics, or stereotypes of demographics, the way Shannara does. It seems that people recognized the difference; while Shannara's future is uncertain, Magicians is assured of a second season. Considering that the second season is when many shows hit their stride, that's really good news, and it will make the wait until 2017 (and season four for Black Sails and The 100) even longer.