Starz airs a preview of Magic City tonight at 11 Eastern. The show officially premières on Friday, April 6, at 10 p.m. Eastern.
There’s a moment in the third episode of Magic City where the promise of the show is briefly fulfilled. Vera Evans (Olga Kurylenko) dances passionately to the sound of Cuban music in a Miami nightclub while her husband Ike (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) negotiates a potentially touchy business deal back at his hotel, the Miramar Playa. The moods are exotic, sultry, and finally tap into the latent strengths of this Starz period piece. While shows like Pan Am and The Playboy Club struggled to get out of the shadow of Mad Men, Magic City has a premise that instantly sets it apart from AMC’s signature show. It’s just too bad that it rarely takes advantage of its unique elements.
What makes Vera’s dance so intoxicating lies in the way it taps into the cultural melting pot of Miami at the end of the 1950s. Magic City starts out on New Year’s Eve 1958, with the Cuban Revolution in full swing. Not only is Miami populated with ex-Cuban citizens, but also a rich tapestry of Jewish, African-American, and other cultures all populating the same city. And yet, for the majority of the early hours of Magic City, the show pays only a cursory glance towards the elements that help prevent it from being called a mere Mad Men knockoff. The show’s multicultural setting, coupled with this crucial point in both American and Cuban politics and the influx of organized crime, makes Miami a perfect setting for some pulpy period drama.
So why do things feel so stale early on? It’s largely a function of the show choosing breadth over depth at every turn, introducing a large cast of characters and a sizable number of storylines without the ability to help illuminate which are more important than others. As such, certain characters or plots are raised at the outset of an episode, only to be forgotten in favor of other elements. We get glimpses of Overtown, a predominantly African-American section of town, but don’t really get a feel for how that particular aspect of the town’s sociology works. Over on Justified, we’ve spent a season or so getting to know the inner workings of Nobles Holler. That’s obviously not to say these two shows are attempting the same thing. But the cultural and historical work done on Justified goes a long way to making those stories feel like part of a local history dating back decades, if not centuries.
Magic City throws audiences into the world of the show with little explanation for how anyone got there. That’s a Mad Men technique, and one that can work as information slowly revealed retroactively helps our understanding of character motivations. But there’s a huge back-story between Ike and Mike Strauss, the local union chief, that would go a long way towards contextualizing the events that happen in tonight’s premiere. There’s a difference between keeping things hidden for dramatic effect and keeping things hidden at the expense of cheapening the moment. Morgan is excellent at conveying a man barely bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, but it takes a while to get at what is weighing so heavily on him. The reveal of the Ike/Mike storyline is wonderfully played, but also fundamentally undercuts Ike’s crucial choice in the pilot.
That choice involves the not-so-silent minority partner, mobster Ben “The Butcher” Diamond (Danny Huston). Diamond helped fund Ike’s dream project from afar in Havana, but with the revolution pushing expats out, Diamond has landed in Miami to reclaim control over Ike’s majority share. Diamond has a curious trend of having ex-wives die during childbirth, and his newest bride Lily (Jessica Marais) has eyes on the eldest Evans son, Stevie (Steven Strait). Stevie is the “bad boy” of the family, following in his father’s less-than-reputable footsteps in order to maintain the prosperity of the hotel. Stevie has a younger brother Danny (Christian Cooke), who not only looks nothing like Stevie but also serves mostly as a plot device rather than an actual human being. He’s a law student, unaware of his father’s shady dealings and the target of a state attorney’s attempt to bring down Diamond through Ike. (He also could not look less like his father or siblings, which may or may not be important down the line. Or maybe I’ve been watching too much Game Of Thrones.)
I haven’t even touched upon the various hotel workers, politicians, celebrities, and escorts that populate the Miramar. (Yes, there are escorts. And yes, there are a lot of boobs. This is Starz, after all. It’s a package deal.) The show is bursting at the seams with ideas, but lacks a focus to help streamline this world into something more manageable. To be sure, things get slightly clearer after an opaque pilot. (How did Ike and Vera meet? Just who owned the land upon which the Miramar now sits?) Magic City wants to be a show about family, ambition, political intrigue, and a dozen other things at once. But what it rarely achieves is a sense of place, which seems like a curious failing. There’s clearly a story to be told about this time and this place. But too often, those specifics get subsumed in perfectly pleasant if bland stories that could have happened as easily in a dozen other places in a dozen other eras.
That’s really a shame, because the ability to spotlight an underserved series of demographics makes this a show worth sticking with, even in these rocky first hours. There’s a brief scene in the third hour in which an anti-Semitic waiter ignores Ike and instead focuses all of his attention on Ike’s former sister-in-law Meg (Kelly Lynch). It’s a small, strong detail that calls attention to discrimination without feeling the need to explicitly comment upon it. What did it mean for the city’s Jewish community to watch their sleepy town turn into an international hotbed? Did those living in Overtown resent or embrace the increasing Cuban demographic in the city? What tensions/alliances were created through this influx? How did increased mob activity and government interest heighten an already dramatic situation? These are all fascinating question, and ones I hope Magic City eventually addresses. But early on, we get a lot of screen time spent on one important question: Will Ike’s father Arthur (Alex Rocco) attend the bat mitzvah of his daughter Lauren (Taylor Blackwell)? There’s potential here, but you’ll need to go digging in the sand to get a glimpse in these early installments.
- The Miramar Playa itself is fantastically designed, specifically an underground bar connected to the outside pool that serves as both backdrop and the metaphorical underpinnings of each hour.
- If you are a dog lover, you might be a Magic City hater. I don’t want to say anything more than that, but be prepared.
- The celebrities mentioned earlier appear largely off-screen. We do see Etta James crooning “Tenderly” at one point. But Frank Sinatra only exists in the eyes of the characters, not the camera.
- There are a lot of tan lines in this show. That’s all I’ll say.
- One thing the show gets right is demonstrating the interplay between one’s actual job and what one does to earn some extra cash. The hotel’s official photographer also has a hand in some of Ike’s extortion attempts, for instance. It’s hard for these characters to point fingers when they constantly have their hands in someone else’s pockets.
- So. Many. Montages. Every mob story owes something to The Godfather, but this show goes to the montage well so often they are probably helping to seed Francis Ford Coppola’s newest vineyard.
- Vera is Ike’s second wife. But I found myself far more intrigued by the idea that Ike’s first marriage may have been to the wrong sister. It sounds like a too-soapy plot, but Morgan and Lynch have a fascinating chemistry.
- The grade above represents an aggregate of what I would give the first three hours available for review. (All three episodes will be available online and through select cable services this weekend.) Tonight’s pilot is the weakest of the three hours.
- Possibly my favorite line in the first three episodes: “What’s so wrong with a little yum yum?” A little more of this kind of dialogue would have gone a long way in livening up the proceedings.
- The A.V. Club may or may not cover Magic City week-to-week, based on overall reader interest.