I haven't read Lev Grossman's trilogy of fantasy novels that inspired the new Syfy series The Magicians, which may be why I was less disappointed in the show than many critics seem to have been. To me, it's not a failed adaptation of a beloved book series, but simply a mediocre fantasy show with hints of promise, reusing a lot of familiar elements from other pop-culture fantasy franchises. The novel was touted by many media outlets as an adult version of Harry Potter, and indeed it follows the general outline of the Potter series, taking place at a secret school for wizards (or magicians, as they're called here), where an apparently important young man (in this case a twentysomething, not a kid) is chosen to attend after being plucked from his previously mundane life. The students take classes in spells and potions, all while a mysterious evil menace lurks in the background.
But The Magicians owes at least as much to C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, since one of its central plot points deals with a series of books about a group of English children who travel to a fantasy world via a magical piece of household furniture. The show's protagonist, Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), is an avid fan of a series of books about a world called Fillory, and part of the show's mythology is the revelation that Fillory is a real place, one that's not quite as charming as Narnia. Grossman's books were acclaimed for their ability to take concepts familiar from series like Harry Potter and Narnia and put a darker, adult spin on them, but the show's version of that comes off mostly like a self-conscious effort to seem dark and edgy, with sex scenes and drinking and basic-cable swearing.
There are some intriguing concepts here, in particular the contrast between the Hogwarts-style school for magicians and a rogue faction of self-taught rejects (including Quentin's best friend Julia), as well as the creepy villain (called "the Beast") that emerges from Fillory to attack the students and teachers at the college. But they're wrapped around a group of fairly uninteresting characters and a world that feels mostly cheap and limited. Given how successful Syfy's The Expanse has been at world-building, it's disappointing that the effects on The Magicians look so chintzy, and that the characters feel so one-dimensional. With his Dawson Leery-style pout, Quentin is whiny and annoying, and his peers are mostly sidelined in the first two episodes, although Julia gets a strong storyline in the second installment. Fans of Grossman's books may have little patience for a show that fails to capture their unique magic, but on its own, The Magicians is passable fantasy TV. Given Syfy's ambitions to create mature, acclaimed genre fare, though, it clearly could have been much more.