Magic City: TV Review

2012-12 REV Magic City H

Jeffrey Dean Morgan (left) and Olga Kurylenko play husband and wife in the period drama.

Starz brings the expected nudity and a new level of ambition to 1950s Miami Beach.

The already-renewed Starz drama mixes "Mad Men" with "The Sopranos," resulting in strong writing, stronger acting and a whole lot of distracting nudity.

At first glance, Magic City, a new Starz drama series, might lead a viewer to think someone has taken parts of Mad Men and parts of The Sopranos and dropped both into a mojito and left it on a lounge chair in the Miami Beach sun.

Well, something like that. Magic City looks good enough to drink, even if you're a little suspicious that you've had these ingredients before under a different name. It's also at times visually reminiscent of those series, even though it's trying to carve out a completely fresh angle.

Set in Miami Beach in 1959, Magic City centers on how one man, Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), builds the immaculate Miramar Playa Hotel on prime beachfront property and watches celebrities, politicians and mobsters gather to play. He is the king of his castle, but, as Magic City tries to underscore numerous times, it's a castle built on sand.

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The series, at least in the early going, seems content to show how much the Miramar means to Ike -- how the former cabana boy's dream needs to be protected at all costs. Although he seems like the luckiest man alive as a widower now married to the gorgeous Vera Evans (Olga Kurylenko), Ike sold 49 percent ownership to Ben "The Butcher" Diamond (Danny Huston) to get the hotel built. That was fine when Ben was living in Havana, but with Cuba about to fall to Castro, Ben has returned and wants more.

Plus, on New Year's Eve, with Frank Sinatra in the house for two sets, the Miramar is surrounded by pickets as organizers try to force Ike to unionize. The hotel is Ike's baby, and he doesn't want anyone -- union, Ben, politicians, police -- to tell him how to run it.

Although Magic City has the same era-specific mannered perfection as Mad Men, plus the mobster element of The Sopranos, the series is doing its own thing (Miami and the Cuban connection being a helpful delineation). If anything, Magic City is closest to Mad Men in that not a whole lot happens as series creator and writer Mitch Glazer tries to set up his complex worldview. Slow movement in and of itself should not be a problem (besides, Starz has allowed more nudity and sex in Magic City than in almost anything else, which ought to keep your attention). But there’s always a worry with slow-building series on niche cable channels that they will fall prey to fierce competition. Early on, there’s enough intrigue and style in Magic City to keep the viewer wanting more, but it’s not as fully realized from the get-go as shows like Mad Men, Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.

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That's no condemnation. Those series are the top-tier dramas on television. It's too early to say where Magic City will end up, but there's more than enough here to keep watching. The premise is intriguing, the hotel is magnificent, and there's something mature and compelling about Morgan. Glazer made him a little older than the usual leading man -- his first wife died of cancer, and he has two grown sons and a daughter. The good son is Danny (Christian Cooke), who wants to be a lawyer and keeps his nose clean, and the bad son is Stevie (Steven Strait), who’s bad only in the sense that he uses his good looks to bed pretty much anyone he sees -- in particular, Lily (Jessica Marais), wife of the Butcher. Meanwhile, Danny’s got his eye on Mercedes (Dominik Garcia-Lorido), a housekeeper at the Miramar.

Anyway, Ike’s age is a nice change from the usual. He’s been around; he has a history. And having the young Vera doting on him (mostly) keeps him young. There’s a hint, however, that beyond making a mistake doing business with the Butcher -- who likes to tie dead bodies to cars at the bottom of the Gulfstream -- Ike might have come across the property for the Miramar in a less-than-clear-conscience way. The family of old friend -- and moneyed society maven -- Meg Bannock (Kelly Lynch) owned the property until Ike got it, razed the Bannock family homes and put up the Miramar.

See, Magic City, even in its first three episodes, is ambitious. It has many, many characters, and once viewers get to know Ike, Vera and The Butcher, they'll have a better sense of the Miramar's place in history. Then the backstory ramifications can kick in. 

But all of this takes time to unfold. The writing is strong, the acting stronger and the amount of distracting nudity strongest. While Magic City is not yet top-tier television, its ambition is clear. Glazer has a passion for this story, and the premise and setting are unique. Starz, with the cultish Spartacus and the acclaimed Boss, might have another building block. The question is whether viewers will stick around to find out. The good news, however, is that Magic City already has been renewed for a second season, so feel free to invest until there's a payoff.