You could be forgiven for being caught off guard when, mere minutes into the new HBO Max reality competition series, Finding Magic Mike, a cast member sheepishly confesses to the camera, “I don’t feel like the main character in my life anymore.” The show, an extension of the budding Magic Mike extended universe (two movies, a third on the way, a live Vegas show that has expanded worldwide, and an upcoming Broadway adaptation), should ostensibly be raunchy fun — a group of guys compete for the chance to win $100,000 as they train to join the parade of hunks in the Vegas production of Magic Mike Live. If that’s all it were, it would probably still be worth a watch. That the series eschews an easy base hit for a risk that turns out to be a home run makes it essential viewing. What it leaves us with is not only a competition show that taps into the (sorry) magic of the second film in the franchise, but also a reality show that explores modern masculinity with a tenderness we’ve not seen since the early seasons of Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot.
The show follows a recognizable reality-competition format: The premiere narrows a group of 50 men down to 25, then 10. Those 10 competitors, our main cast, learn a new dance set piece every week, incorporating everything from aerial choreography to pyro effects. There are eliminations every episode, working toward a final competition in which two finalists participate in a performance of Magic Mike Live (they will have 5 days to learn all 11 numbers). The winner gets $100,000.
What first sets the show apart from its peers is how little the competition aspect seems to matter to both the cast and the crew making it. From the jump, it’s incredibly clear that most of the guys competing on Finding Magic Mike are looking for something less tangible than a fat payday. The cast includes, among others, a Mormon-raised bisexual, a recently retired Olympian searching for meaning now that the work to which he dedicated his life has come to a close, and a guy so rife with body insecurity that he no longer knows how to present himself as sexually desirable to his girlfriend.
It calls to mind the heart of Magic Mike XXL, the best installment in the Magic Mike multiverse (Miketiverse?). The film is one of the great screen portrayals of male friendship, sure, but it’s also about the relationship between the male form and movement as expression. I find that movie’s climax so emotionally affecting because these guys are not only learning to think of what they do as an art but how to use that art as an expression of self, of dreams, of desires — all of which are seen as worth celebrating, no matter how silly an artisanal froyo-DJ truck may be.
That’s the DNA of Finding Magic Mike. It hardly feels right to call it an “elimination” when someone is cut from the cast. There are no panels of judges overedited to build faux tension. When a guy is eliminated, a producer breaks the news to them backstage, quietly and with tremendous empathy, often explaining that they didn’t fail to perform up to a standard but rather have reached what their guides feel is the conclusion to their journey. Sure, every now and then someone just can’t keep up with the rigorous choreography, but more often than not it feels like the natural resolution to an arc.
It is here that we must talk about Adonis, the breakout character of the show if there is one. The Brooklyn-born nursing student enters the competition as one of the less conventionally fit cast members (in a confessional video, he refers to his “dad bod” with some self-deprecation), and he talks about how he’s aiming to get his body into a place more closely resembling some of his fellow castmates. It’s one of the great strengths of the show that this is one of the last times his size is referenced — Adonis is one of the more singularly charismatic reality television cast members in recent memory. He is handsome, charming, warm, and empathetic, immediately taking on the role of group dad once the competition is under way. He is the biggest cheerleader in the room whenever his boys succeed and the first to shed a tear when someone is cut. That any viewer could walk away from watching Finding Magic Mike without developing a severe crush on him feels unfathomable.
Guys like Adonis are rarely given the space to thrive on reality shows like The Bachelor or Love Is Blind. To be clear, there are plenty of conventionally attractive and physically fit guys on Finding Magic Mike (and the series does an excellent job of exploring the realities of the divide between body image and self-confidence). But this is a show that authentically seems to go out of its way to center as many guys who defy convention as possible.
A competition runs throughout Finding Magic Mike, but it often feels secondary to a celebration — of growth and movement and men learning to love themselves. The dance numbers are shot in reliably spectacular fashion (one set in a facsimile of a Grease-inspired drive-in is especially memorable), and there’s plenty of eye candy, but it firmly places heart over hornt — though at its best it’s exploring the inextricable ties between the two.
Finding Magic Mike is streaming on HBO Max.