The new Starz drama Magic City, a macho soap opera set in sex-glamour-and-revolution-rocked 1958 Miami, cries out for one of those bitchy one- or two-sentence reviews that music critics sometimes write when they really hate a new album. (My favorite is my old Dallas Observer colleague Robert Wilonsky’s review of the Black Crowes’ The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion: “I seem to recall loaning this album to a friend in 1974 and not asking for it back.”) But the show is so enervating and undeservedly full of itself, and such an altogether depressing combination of brilliant production values and subpar drama, that I can’t muster the necessary bile.
The latest in a seemingly endless series of dramas that desperately want to be the next The Sopranos — my former Vulture colleague Willa Paskin has memorably dubbed such shows “Fauxpranos” — it’s got all the necessary components but fails to assemble them in a lively and original way. The show just lies there and dies there. I got about midway through the second episode and thought, This show could rally and eventually amount to something, but life’s too short to stick around and find out. I’d rather rewatch The Godfather, Part II or the first season of Michael Mann’s great and still-underappreciated period drama Crime Story, both of which seem to have influenced Magic City. The pastel skies, the bright blue water, the sexy young women in their tight two-piece bathing suits, the sleek hunks with their skinny ties and cigarettes, the backroom plots and nasty murders, should all be electrifying, or at least pleasurable. But they feel like disconnected affectations in search of a purpose.
The show’s Tony Soprano/Al Swearengen/Don Draper antihero is Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a hotel owner who’s not as sweet and bland as he initially seems. When our story opens on New Year’s Eve, 1958, Ike’s freaking out because Frank Sinatra is set to perform at his private kingdom, the Miramar, and a hotel workers’ strike is keeping liquor and other precious supplies from entering the grounds. What to do about the intractable labor union leader who wants Ike’s employees to unionize? Really, now. We all saw the first Godfather, and we also saw the opening dream sequence in which Ike pictures the bodies of previously murdered enemies floating in brackish water. We know it’s only a matter of time before Ike or an underling makes the union guy an offer he can’t refuse, or just straight up murders him. But the pilot takes forever to bring us to that point, and acts as if it’s a profound decision on Ike’s part when anybody who’s seen this type of character in a gangster film knows that kind of subplot can’t possibly resolve itself peacefully.
On the personal end of things, Ike’s an assimilated Jew whose family is even more mainstream in its presentation and value system. He has two adult sons, a straitlaced law student Danny (Christian Cooke) and a more gangsterish type named named Stevie (Steven Strait), who’s first seen getting head while driving a vintage convertible through Miami. (The show has a knack for introducing characters with sleazy flourish, I’ll give it that.) Ike also has a beautiful young second wife named Vera (Olga Kurylenko), who wants to convert to Judaism to fit in, a Cuban right-hand man (Yul Vázquez) who’s worried about getting loved ones out of Batista’s soon-to-be-Castro-ized Cuba, and a father (Alex Rocco) who’s amusingly described in a later episode as the worst Jew in Miami. (He’s a leftist atheist who reads revolutionary literature; in 1958 Greenwich Village, he’d have been considered a tad boring.)
Ike’s business partner Ben the Butcher, a psycho played by the instantly creepy and effortlessly hate-able Danny Huston, wants full ownership of the hotel in exchange for solving Ike’s labor troubles. Ben’s previous two wives both mysteriously died in childbirth, and now he’s carrying on with Lily (Jessica Marais), a twentysomething vixen who hangs out in smoky cocktail lounges and takes an instant liking to Stevie. And by “liking,” I mean “film noir urge to rut.”
The only good scene in the pilot, which was directed by the excellent filmmaker Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress), is the one that introduces Lily as she coaches a torch singer. Franklin shows her hand touching Frankie’s hand, then pans up to her face, an old-movie flourish that of a sort that Magic City could use more of. Franklin would have been a great director for the forties studio era; he has a knack for adding poetry to tediously prosaic material. But he can’t energize scenes that were conceived with no imagination, and the show’s characters are mostly cutouts. There isn’t a single woman with more than one dimension; at least the men have two. I wish series creator Mitch Glazer, who was born in Miami around the same time as the drama’s events and was the son of an electrical engineer at the Miramar, had given up trying to add something new to the historical soap or the gangster picture, two modes he adores but doesn’t have much feel for, and just wallowed in the posturing and atmosphere.
Magic City has guilty pleasure potential, but it’s neither guilty nor pleasurable enough. It just lies there under the hot sun, occasionally rousing itself to turn over or refill its drink. It’s the kind of show in which a character tells the parable of the scorpion and the frog and acts as if we’ve never heard it before. Yes, really.