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Interview: ‘The Magicians’ Showrunner Sera Gamble on the Rules of Magic

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The Magicians

The new Syfy series The Magicians premiered in January. Based on the books by Lev Grossman, it tells the story of a group of young magicians at Brakebills University in New York. Our students include Quentin (Jason Ralph), Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), Kady (Jade Tailor), Penny (Arjun Gupta), Margo (Summer Bishil), Julia (Stella Maeve) and Eliot (Hale Appleman).

At the NBC networks party for the Television Critics Association, I met The Magicians showrunner (and former Supernatural showrunner) Sera Gamble. She explained some of the rules for magic and spells we might see on future episodes of The Magicians. Find out what we learned after the jump.

Is part of your mission to make magic cool again?

Was it uncool?

We didn’t see a lot of it for a while.

It’s funny because I’m a fan of this kind of story so I think I seek it out. I find it everywhere that I can. I’m aware of every TV show I think that casts magic spells and such. I think our goal was to make magic really specific and to make it really personal and to use it to tell a very contemporary story. So if that makes it cool, then I’m happy about that.

How specific are the rules of magic in The Magicians?

Very specific. The thing that happens when you start writing a TV show in the fantasy genre is when you start, your world is a wide open vista, but every time you decide how something works, you’ve made a rule and now it’s chiseled in stone and you have to follow that rule for the life of the series. We’re fortunate in that a lot of the specifics of the show have been road tested hard by Lev Grossman in his trilogy of novels that he wrote. So we’ve inherited a lot of really hard initial work that he did figuring out how the world works.

Is the first season the first book, or even less than that?

In a very broad brushstroke, yes, but we borrow from the second book as well. Julia is kind of off the page for a lot of the first book. She disappears for a while. When she comes back, she’s very changed and you don’t really find out what she was up to until the second book. We decided to tell those stories concurrently, so we’re playing both stories simultaneously.

When did you read the books?

I read them years ago. Amazon recommended them because I read so much stuff like that. I fell in love. I called my agent when I was about halfway through the book, and I said, “Is there any chance this is available so I could try and write this as a television show?” He said, “No, it’s not available. Someone else is developing it.” I said, “Just let me know where it goes.” Years later, the books were brought up in a meeting I was having with John McNamara, my writing partner, and Michael London, our executive producer. I flipped out as soon as I heard the words The Magicians because I had loved it for years by then.

That sounds like magic.

I think of it as kismet, yes. There’s a lot about the show, I don’t want to be corny, but it has felt magical many times.

Is a single episode like a chapter, or are there several chapters per episode?

We do a little bit of a remix on the timeline from the books. One of the first, most important things to know if you come to the series as a fan of the books is that we have aged the characters up. Now they’re in graduate school. Quentin is 17 when you meet him in the books and there were a lot of reasons we did that, but to us it’s worked really well. Lev Grossman embraced the change as well. Because of that, the timeline, the structure of their education is different. We hit a lot of the greatest hits. We just don’t do them all in the same order as the books.

Was Harry Potter a factor in aging them up, so you wouldn’t be doing child/teen magicians again?

I think the books are clearly knowingly inspired in many ways by Harry Potter and by The Chronicles of Narnia among a few others. I think part of the point of writing them for Lev was to take some of these fantasy tropes and take them out of the world of childhood and into the kind of problems and the gray areas of adulthood, where destiny is not so clear and being a hero is not so easy or clear. I think that’s something that’s really started in the books and we’re just running with it.

Was the idea of a magician being treated for mental health in the books, or something new for the series?

It’s clear when you read the books that Quentin, if you read it closely, it seems clear that at times he’s depressed and maybe diagnosably depressed. It’s something that we talked about with Lev. One of the fun things about adapting something to another medium is you get to really do a deep dive into some of that stuff. It seemed clear to John and me that this is a guy who’s depressed. He has actual mental health issues. Let’s start him in a mental hospital. Let’s really go there and face it head on, make that a real substantial part of his character.

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