NOTE: Though there are three episodes out there in the world, we’re going to try to keep our discussion to the one episode that already aired on TV in that sneak preview last Friday. If you’ve seen all three and want to offer opinion on them in total, that’s fine, but please don’t go into any plot detail from the next two.
As a technical achievement, Starz’s “Magic City” is terribly impressive. Set in and around a Miami resort hotel in 1959, the drama has the same eye for period detail of “Mad Men,” but on a far bigger scale. The sets are huge and lavish, the scenes bustling with extras all decked out in their ’50s finest. And the visual splendor extends beyond the sets and costumes. There’s a scene in the series’ premiere episode(*) where hotel owner Ike Evans visits the home of his gangster business partner Ben Diamond that practically looks like it was filmed in Technicolor. In a later episode, Ike retreats from the debauchery on Ben’s party boat in a shot that looks like he’s just caught the last boat out of Hell.
(*) The “official” premiere is Friday night at 10, but Starz already aired the first episode last week after the Spartacus finale, and the first three episodes are already available online.
So, yes, “Magic City” is gorgeous to look at. Creator Mitch Glazer grew up in Miami Beach during this period, where his father was an electrical engineer for a hotel like Ike’s Miramar Playa, and he’s recreated the era beautifully.
As a narrative achievement, though, “Magic City” is a mess, filled with paper-thin characters and clichéd dialogue and storylines. If not for the appealing lead performance by Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Ike, large stretches of the series would be unwatchable, even with all the lovely visuals.
If anything, the focus on making things look good seems to suck much of the energy from the series, which at times seems more diorama than drama. “Mad Men” also fetishizes the past, but never at the expense of story or character, where there are plenty of scenes in “Magic City” that seem designed only to make the viewer gawk at how spiffy things looked in the good old days.
Morgan seems to alternate between cold action roles (the Comedian in “Watchmen”) and others where he’s asked to be a big, friendly, eager sheepdog (Denny Duquette on “Grey’s Anatomy”). This is more him in the latter mode. Ike loves this hotel, and the life he’s built for himself and his family. He struts through the joint with a massive grin he can never quite wipe off, and tells a new bellboy that they keep the lobby so cold “so the ladies can wear their furs. That’s our job, Ray-Ray. We sell the dream!” You watch him decked out in the period clothes, a stogie usually not far from his lips, and it’s not hard to imagine some alternate timeline where Morgan was cast as Don Draper, and pulled off the role as well as Jon Hamm.
Morgan’s charming, and well-matched by Olga Kurylenko (the Bond girl from “Quantum of Solace”) as Ike’s second wife Vera, a former showgirl who converted to Judaism to please her husband and his kids and became more invested in the culture than they are, to the point where Ike jokes that “I went to bed with Rita Hayworth and woke up with Golda Meir.” (Last “Mad Men” comparison, I promise: think of Vera as Betty Draper if she was actually happy to give up her glamorous life to have a family.)
Making most of the main characters Jewish – and a wide swath of Jewish culture circa 1959, including Ike’s secular, Communist father Arthur (played by Moe Greene himself, Alex Rocco) – is one of the better choices Glazer made. All the material about assimilation, the immigrant experience, etc., feels specific in a way that the rest of “Magic City” does not as it trots out various tropes borrowed from “The Godfather” series and other stories about the intersection of crime and entertainment.
So we open with Ike dreaming about people who sleep with the fishes, and soon the Miramar Playa is embroiled in a big but incredibly familiar mess involving union leaders, an investigation by a prosecutor who wants to clear these heathen hedonists off the beach, Castro’s revolution a little to the south. When Ike goes to Ben Diamond (Danny Huston) for help dealing with the union, Ben asks, “You ever hear the story about the frog and the scorpion?” Ike hasn’t, which I’ll forgive, since in 1959 that particular parable hadn’t been used to death by the movie industry to explain the danger of teaming up with criminals and other bad people. But like so many other aspects of “Magic City,” Ben’s monologue about his true nature is a tired old saw being presented as if it was something bold and clever.
It doesn’t help that Huston is busy gnawing on the scenery in that and every other scene he’s in, to the point where much of Ben’s intended menace plays as comical. Still, he’s better than a number of the supporting players, particularly Steven Strait as Ike’s older son Stevie, a sleepy-eyed bad boy whose main function within the series seems to be facilitating the large number of nude and/or sex scenes that Starz seems to require of all its dramas. As unintentionally comical in their gratuity as some of the nude scenes on “Boss” seemed, they’ve got nothing on “Magic City,” which has a naked woman as the centerpiece of its opening credits sequence and puts Stevie into scenes that have no apparent plot, character or thematic purpose but do feature lots of topless women. And Strait is such a complete blank in the role that the amount of time devoted to Stevie – and, particularly, to lingering, apparently meaningful close-ups of Stevie lost in thought – becomes a huge problem.
I’ve seen three episodes of “Magic City.” I spent the first hour being impressed by the production values and mostly bored by anything the characters were doing or saying, and spent the second struggling to make it through to the end because the plot felt so creaky and the characters kept speaking in clichés. The third episode, which spends a lot of time on Kelly Lynch as the sister of Ike’s late first wife, and also gives Kurylenko a lot more to do, perks up a bit, but the batting average on the whole is very weak to start out.
Like Ike Evans with his chilly lobby, Mitch Glazer is clearly someone who wants to sell a dream, in this case one of yesteryear. And there’s ample material in this period, particularly when you factor in the locale. Maybe the improvement in the third episode will continue, but what I’ve seen so far of “Magic City” seems less dreamlike than sleepy.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com