Long before The Magicians on SyFy was renewed for Season 5, the writers and cast were promoting Season 4 at San Diego Comic Con 2018. It’s easy to see why the show was renewed for another season as the crew has brought a fresh perspective to the story based on Lev Grossman’s series of novels.
This fresh perspective may be by necessity. Without spoiling too much, many of the characters’ minds are erased going into the new season. Previous character perceptions are thrown out and that challenge for the writers and cast has allowed them not only to adapt brilliantly but also grow the show into new heights.
Much of that ascendence has to do with the writing duo of Sera Gamble and John McNamara. While working on the show Aquarius, they both created and executive produced The Magicians; that shared past between these two helped create the future of this show and they continue to feed off of each other to find new places to explore.
“[John] was my first boss in television so I learned a lot about how to write television working for him,” Gamble said. “He spent a lot of extra time. Now I understand that’s not necessarily par for the course. A lot of show owners are like ‘It’s easier if I do it myself.’ But he spends a lot of time teaching people how to write TV, young, new writers.”
For McNamara, he doesn’t want to give the notion that this teaching is necessarily a selfless act. He’s under the philosophy that if you teach very well, you can just go home and relax. Which is what they are both doing now and their chemistry has afforded them that luxury of time to write thoughtfully and provokingly. As much as Gamble has learned from McNamara, this learning is certainly mutual.
“I don’t like fantasy,” McNamara said. “I’ve said that every single year. When I say that, I lose 20 followers on Twitter. I am a huge science fiction fan, I’m a huge action, adventure, spy fan. I love superheroes. I will throw down anyone Star Trek trivia. Fantasy and I just never connected.”
“If the books had come to me I would have said no. When I said to Sarah, it sounds like a Harry Potter, she said we’re doing it and you’re doing it with me. I said ok, I guess, I didn’t have anything better to do. I think it worked out that she is so steeped in it and loves it so deeply. I’m the one that says I don’t get it. ‘What’s a Niffin?’ that’s a stupid word and that’s not scary. Then I’m the one that goes, we should do a musical and she’s like ‘no.'”
They need each other and build off one another. When they got the first book, they just thought of that as Season 1 and couldn’t think beyond that. Luckily for us and them, there is a lot source material and they kept building. Not all of Grossman’s material could be translated to TV though. Once again this is where their chemistry and experience working together helped them arrive on a similar tone to tell these stories.
“A lot of it was a deep dive into Quentin Coldwater’s mind, or it’s really about the mood of being a goose for a long time for example,” Gamble said about the source material. “There’s a whole chapter where they’re geese and they’re flying and it’s like here’s what it’s like to be a goose. That is not easy television to make.”
“In the episode it was a shot of geese,” McNamara said.
“Yeah, and even that was challenging for production,” Gamble said. “So our rule is that we always pay close attention and invite all the writers to pay close attention to how they feel when they’re reading these passages. And we want to invoke the same feeling and the same spirit and often to do that we go down a completely different route plot-wise. But the idea is that then we are bringing the spirit of the books to life on TV for you by deviating from the story a bit.”
The writers aren’t the only ones eliciting their emotions from these passages. Hale Appleman’s character Eliot Waugh comes across as a rebel. Appleman says that rebelliousness makes him feel that Eliot is a character in the vein of David Bowie or Oscar Wilde. There is a reflection of beauty and poetry in this character that balances the brashness. But that has all changed now that he is dealing with a blank slate. The showrunners have helped him bring a new perspective.
“Well, at some point John McNamara mentioned to me to start the season as a nine year old without any empathy or impulse control,” Appleman said. “Which is sort of a very specific moment to begin that character’s part. It started from the beginning, so I think we’re going to watch him mature as time goes on.”
While Appleman has had inspired direction for his character, his experience in theater has prepared him in many ways for this role on TV.
“I think when you are an actor on stage you are called upon to make something feel very really lived in and real from start to finish every single night. The difference on TV is that every day you’re shooting new material that you haven’t previously had, sometimes working with actors that you don’t really have a relationship with. My theater experience definitely prepared me in terms of building character and also feeling confident in my body onstage or on set. That definitely transfers over. The trick is on film and TV to keep it feeling spontaneous and be willing and open to discovering something new,” he said.
The new plot lines certainly are advantageous to this creative spontaneity. But Appleman wasn’t the only one to draw on his theater experience in his role for the Magicians. Jason Ralph knew a bit about magic long before he joined the cast as Quentin Coldwater. He played Peter Pan in a Broadway production of Peter and the Starcatcher. Jason sees Quentin’s approach to magic as polarizing with the new child-like innocence Appleman is trying to bring to his character.
“Quentin unlike a lot of characters that we see in the fictional world who experience magic for the first time, I don’t think comes at it with wide-eyed wonder. He comes at it with skepticism and dissatisfaction. I think it’s never what he needed it to be,” Ralph said.
With the reset plot lines of Season 4, Ralph credits the writers bringing invigoration and a fresh perspective to his role. Now he is playing a guy named Ryan and it will be telling how much of Quentin’s past will effect his outlook going forward as someone entirely different. Ralph’s character hasn’t effected his sense of wonder about magic though. His character and the books have brought him plenty of intrigue.
“I think [Quentin] struggled a lot in his real life and always fantasized about how things could be better, how he would change. The idea of magic or fantasy was a simple fix and it turns out it hasn’t been. If anything, it’s complicated things,” he said. “I think that’s what’s interesting about the books and the show, that we don’t have wide-eyed wonder. We have a pretty good look like if magic were to actually exist and show up in people’s lives, what that would be. It’s really cool and awesome but it’s really not and it’s not as useful as it may seem.”
The story is very different for Olivia Taylor Dudley. Her character hasn’t had her mind erased. Being in a different scenario than all her cast mates has brought about a different approach to her performance.
“It’s a lot of alone time,” Taylor Dudley said speaking about the changes of this season. “Alice is alone in jail right now so it’s been kind of a lonely season. A lot of exciting and fun things happen while she’s there. I am trying to approach Alice like she was Season 1 giving up on knowing everything and just trying to wait for answers. I feel like last year, she had one thing in mind, to kill magic. She thought she was doing the right thing, she still thinks she did, but nobody else thought that. I think this year she’s like I don’t know everything, how do I fix this?”
Alice may feel alone but that’s not how Taylor Dudley feels on set.
“I never really feel alone working. It’s a big crew and I do have other guest stars and people I’m working with now. I really do miss working with the group. I loved Season 1 when we were always all together on set when we were working together. I do miss that aspect of it but I’m sure it’ll come back around.”
No matter the plot lines, the writers and cast thoughtful approach to these characters make this one of the first show’s you can’t miss in this new year.
Watch the premiere of Season 4 of The Magicians Wednesday, January 23 at 9 PM ET and On Demand on SyFy.