Interview: 'The Magicians' Showrunner Sera Gamble On The Rules Of Magic

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.

The Magicians

In this world, could you cast a happy spell on yourself?

Like is there a Prozac spell? There might be. I think a magician with enough talent could probably make a spell like that, but I doubt that spell would be permanent. Much like you could drink a delicious drink and be a little tipsy and have a wonderful evening, but you might have a hangover the next day. That's kind of how magic works in this world. So you could probably have the happy spell but you might have a raging headache and be super bitchy and depressed the next morning.

How much recovery time do they need?

I think it depends. Your tolerance would be different for each person.

Is there a rule established already about resurrection spells, if a character happens to die?

Are there rules about that? [Laughs.] I'll give you a minor spoiler and let you know that we do see corpses rise in season one. We do raise a corpse but we haven't established all the rules for that. Certainly these characters will face death over the life of the series, so these are questions they'll be asking themselves. It's a good question.

Do you have to set some limitations on magic so there are still dramatic stakes, they can't just cast a spell to undo anything?

Well, magic in our world is very difficult to do. It's very arduous. Basically, you have one of two choices if you want to cast big, important magic to change something, like cure someone of a terminal illness. Either it has to be a random lucky burst of massive energy, or more likely you would have to be a great magician who studied for years and years and decades. There's just a lot of mysterious stuff that needs to be unlocked over time. In our world, magic functions similarly to science really. There's a lot that a trained scientist can do and there's a lot that hasn't been solved yet, that hasn't been cracked.

Is this like The Knick of magic?

I love that. I'm obsessed with that show. I love that show. Just in that everything is hard and they're discovering it as they go along? I love that you're asking these questions because it's exactly the kind of questions we ask ourselves in the writers room. We ask ourselves, "Could you cast a spell to make someone fall in love? Could you cast a spell to make yourself beautiful? Could you cast a spell if somebody got really sick that you loved and you wanted to cure them?" We have to really judge what are the consequences, what does it cost to do that piece of magic? At what part is the cost so high that the magic wouldn't be worth it?

What are some casual spells that don't take much energy?

Our characters do a lot of magic around drinking, smoking or having sex. There's a lot of sexual spells.

Is there magic Viagra?

There is. Of course there's magic Viagra. Could you imagine a world where a bunch of male magicians would not invent that?

Could you have done more than 13 episodes?

Yes, we plan to. We hope to. If we get renewed for another season, we're ready to hit the ground running.

Was 13 a good way to start?

I love doing 13. As someone who comes from network television and has had some very long seasons in my career, I think 13 is a really nice number. You get to expand the plot. You have some nice twists but you don't have to dilute the story. We throw a lot of story at the audience in season one.

What were the magic rules on Supernatural?

There were so many magic rules, but Supernatural exists, at least in the beginning, for the first few seasons, it existed in what we started to realize in the writers room was a pretty Judeo-Christian universe. There was a heaven and a hell. There were angels and demons. It was a really fun sort of playground. The world of The Magicians is a little bit more eclectic than that. The source of magic feels, I'll just say, a little bit less Judeo-Christian.

Is there religion in the world of The Magicians?

There is and in fact in season one you'll meet a magician who considers himself to be a religious man, someone who believes in God. Because the characters on this show are sort of collegiate and really intellectual, they get into discussions and arguments with him about how you could believe in something bigger than yourself like that on faith.

Is there any conflict from outside religions?

In the world of The Magicians, the average guy who's waiting for the subway probably doesn't know that he's standing next to a master magician. Magicians tend to keep things fairly on the down low. They walk among us. For the world of The Magicians, there might be five or six of them in this ballroom tonight, but they don't advertise necessarily.

How do you personally run a writers room?

I like a fairly small room full of people with lots of opinions. I think one of the most important things is to create an atmosphere of what I call relative safety, where people feel like they can pitch an idea that might be brilliant or might be stupid. Let's just play with it. It's like being in an improv group where everyone is building on everyone else's ideas. It's fun. It's a really nice collaborative atmosphere and writing can be lonely and solitary. It's nice to do it with other writers.

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The Magicians airs Monday nights at 9PM on Syfy.