Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

The Gentleman and Jonathan Strange.

By Bill Chaisson

There is an overlap between superhero shows and movies and — what should we call them? — films and programs about wielders of magic; they are all fantasy. Some superheroes, like the Scarlet Witch or Dr. Strange, are overtly using magic as a superpower. But mostly magic as a theme exists as a separate sub-genre of fantasy and one that has become increasingly popular.

Today’s television shows have come a long way from “My Favorite Martian,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” and “Bewitched,” which used magic as simply an exotic complication to normal suburban life. Not only have special effects evolved, but the creators have embraced a darker, more complex perspective on magic. Now there is little hesitation about exploring the destructive potential both for the magician and for those who are subjected to magical powers.

“The Magicians” is based on a trilogy of fantasy novels by Lev Grossman. As in the Harry Potter books, the ability to do magic is presented as a genetic trait and the plot has a further English influence in that it is all about school. Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist, grows up obsessed with books about a magical place called Fillory, which of course turns out to be a “real” place. He and his friend Julia both take an entrance exam to a secret school of magic and Julia fails.

The television program seems to emphasize the dichotomy between learning magic in a controlled environment from teachers, as Quentin does, and learning it from rogue students of the magical arts, as Julia does. Rather horrible things happen to Quentin and his fellow students when they do battle with creatures from the magical realm of Fillory. Meanwhile Julia’s education “on the streets” is fraught with violence, betrayal, and power struggles.

“The Magicians” employs an obvious device to tell you how you are supposed to feel about the different realms. The colors of the world of the magic school are slightly over-saturated and everyone and everything looks abnormally healthy. In contrast, the real world inhabited by Julia is slightly bleached of color, dirty, and dilapidated. Frankly, I haven’t watched the show enough to get a read on Fillory,but glimpses of it have been monochrome blue and full of distortion. In other words, not a fun place.

“Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” is, like “The Magicians,” based on a novel, this one by Susanna Clarke. It is a seven-part mini-series and deploys the alternate-history approach. The setting is England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Somewhere in Hampshire presumably, Jane Austen is scribbling away. But in this world magic is treated as a sort of force in the universe that those with a gift can tap into. In this timeline magic is treated as a historical phenomenon that has apparently “died out” until Mr. Norrell appears on the political scene in London, announcing that he has in effect rediscovered it.

As with “The Magicians” there are two methods of learning and using magic, an establishment route and a rogue route. But in “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” the color of the hats is reversed. Mr. Norrell wishes to set up a school and train magicians who will then essentially go into civil service albeit at a high level. Mr. Norrell views magic as a special sort of social capital and he is determined to maximize his use of it to improve his own station in the world. Jonathan Strange, on the other hand, is an autodidact who comes to Mr. Norrell under the impression that he has something to learn from him and to join his cause, which is to use magic to further government policy.

Norrell is convinced that this is the only way for magic to be seen as “legitimate.” He fears that unless magic is part of the government it will be outlawed. Strange grows disillusioned with this staid approach, especially has he taps into the deep pagan roots of the craft, which Norrell regards as off limits. That magic is out in the open and taken as a rather odd but not outrageous talent makes “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” quite different from “The Magicians.” It makes Strange and Norrell more like superheroes without secret identities. In contrast, “The Magicians” portrays an entirely private world quite cut off from real world politics.

Oddly, there is still one show out there that is more or less like “Bewitched” or “I Dream of Jeannie.” Not surprisingly “The Good Witch” is brought to us by Hallmark, a bastion of feel-good conservatism. It began as a movie, spawned sequels, and then a television show. It begins with the presumption that most people think witches are bad and isn’t it surprising that this one, portrayed by Catherine Bell, is good. In this show magic is once again genetic — her adolescent daughter’s powers are manifesting in early episodes of the show — and it is set in a suburban town that hasn’t been particularly updated from the 1960s. The cast includes all kinds of stock characters: troubled young people finding their way in life; a casually corrupt mayor; catty, conniving women; and an arrogant, but well meaning doctor. One is expected to believe that Cassandra Nightingale, the good witch, is able to live in a MacMansion in Middleton with only the income she derives from owning a New Age herb shop. Fantasy, indeed.

Our fascination with “special powers” is a constant. But when the percentage of shows that depend on use of special powers expands I think that means something about our society. We might be losing faith in our own ordinary ability to deal with the problems of everyday life and with political and social problems. The old shows like “Bewitched” were different in that Samantha seemed to just want to be an ordinary person and her magic was a sort of occasionally useful burden. The modern shows generally portray normal life and normal people as an undesirable state, or as in the case of “The Magicians,” a rather awful place. That is a different message.

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