VANCOUVER – It takes a little magic to make any TV show. It takes a lot of magic to make “The Magicians,” back for a second season on Syfy and Showcase.
The Vancouver-based production stars Jason Ralph as Quentin Coldwater, a graduate student who enrols at Brakebills College to train as a magician. There he discovers the magical worlds he read about in his childhood books — and learns that magic is real and poses a danger to the outside world.
Meanwhile, his childhood friend Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve) is denied entry into the magic school, forcing her to look elsewhere to explore her powers.
It’s all based on the novel “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman. Executive producers John McNamara (“Trumbo”) and Sera Gamble (“Supernatural”) each read the book separately and wanted to do the series, while Michael London (“Astronaut Wives Club”) had the rights. They all got together and “poof” — the magic began.
The enormously successful Harry Potter books and movies were obviously a big influence, but TV is filled these days with fantasy landscapes, from “Game of Thrones” to “The Walking Dead.” Why this urge to escape?
“It’s a dangerous, crazy world right now, that’s why,” says McNamara. “People are looking for meaning, so they find it best in metaphor. They don’t find inner meaning in a politician or a political movement.”
Ralph agrees. “The world is terrifying, constantly,” says the 30-year-old Texan. “We have a lot of fantasy shows and comic book movies happening right now, and a lot of that is escapism.”
The fantasy realms of Fillory and Further come to life in the show’s second season. Helping to make that happen is Dublin-born production designer Rachel O’Toole, who previously designed sets for shows such as “The Witches of East End” and “Reaper.”
O’Toole designed a mammoth almost-560-square-meter throne room that took six weeks to build on a Vancouver sound stage.
“It’s a character built to support all the other characters,” says O’Toole. Her aim was to get as far away as possible from any Harry Potter “Hogwarts” comparisons, using Moroccan influences and a natural colour palate.
“It’s mind boggling,” says Summer Bishil, who plays Margo on the series. “When you walk into the throne room it’s beautiful and stunning but also feels like an era that’s been left behind for a very long time.”
The set, adds Bishil, makes it “very easy to make believe. When you sit on the throne it demands your posture change in a way.”
McNamara admits he had a hard time visualizing the expanded fantasy landscape.
“The minute Rachel started showing us the world, everything relaxed in me,” he says. “I got it. It’s not King Arthur, it’s not Arabian Knights, it’s its own thing.”
Shooting in Vancouver also helps bring this fantasy to life, says Arjun Gupta, who plays William (Penny) Adiyodi, Quentin’s roommate and peer.
“Vancouver’s an incredibly versatile city,” says Gupta, who prior to “The Magicians” was a regular on “Nurse Jackie.”
“If you’re shooting in L.A., where the heck are you going to find a forest? One that’s not either on fire of turning brown?”
The fantasy worlds come to the fore in season 2, says Ralph. Quentin starts to shed his old ways “to become, maybe not a better person, but maybe a more true version of who he is.”
It’s a bold new world, too, for Quentin’s childhood friend Julia, who either betrayed everyone — or saved everybody’s life — at the end of last season by taking on master magician “The Beast” (English actor Charles Mesure).
Some fans are convinced Julia has gone to the dark side, but Maeve insists her character “took the brunt of the big confrontation at the end of last season and is trying to help.”
Season 2 of “The Magicians” airs Thursdays on Showcase.
— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont. While in Vancouver, Brioux was a guest of Corus Entertainment.