'Magic City' Review: The Formula Behind This Sun-Soaked Gangster Drama

It can't be denied that the makers of "Magic City" (10 p.m. ET Friday, Starz) assembled a promising list of ingredients for this period drama. Watching "Magic City," which is set at a swanky Miami hotel in the late '50s, one can't help but think about what might have been, given that some of the show's influences and references are pretty top-notch (though others are not, as you'll see from the list below).

Here are just a few of the aspects of pop culture that "Magic City" draws from:

  1. "Mad Men." It's not just that the Starz drama begins just two years before 1960, which is when the first season of the AMC drama was set -- there are echoes of Don Draper all over the place. The moody score recalls the soundtrack of the superior AMC show, and the lead character of "Magic City," hotel owner Isaac "Ike" Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is a ruggedly handsome, dark-haired man who likes to smoke, drink and stare into the sky as he ponders his personal and professional dilemmas. Ike's very pretty wife, who had a somewhat glamorous career before settling down, is much younger than he is, and occasionally grows frustrated with her limited spousal role (sound like any "Mad Men" characters you know?). I could go on, but you get the idea.

  • "Goodfellas," "The Sopranos" and almost every gangster movie ever made. Ike is a self-made man, but his chief investor is Ben Diamond (Danny Huston), a sociopathic mobster who resembles every other sociopathic mobster you've ever seen (thus Diamond is far less interesting than he could be, because you've seen all his moves before). Dirty deals go down, bodies are disposed of, stacks of cash are distributed and I suppose we're supposed to feel empathy regarding Ike's conflicted loyalties and his desire to get out from under Diamond's thumb. But the fact is, "Magic City" simply doesn't have the propulsion, depth or visual flair of a great (or good) gangster film. Like most other things on this show, Diamond is one-dimensional, predictable and derivative.
  • Dozens of TV shows and movies made in Miami. The hotel is the real star of "Magic City," which isn't a bad thing; some of the sets, especially the lobby, look pretty swell. Also, there is a smattering of beach and poolside scenes, though fewer than you might expect. Strangely enough, Miami itself isn't used all that well in the series -- the hotel is really the focus, and the characters don't go outside all that often (perhaps there were financial constraints that kept location shooting to a minimum). Again, the lack of location shooting is not necessarily a bad thing, though Ike's world can start to feel a little small at times, and given how much we've seen of Miami in other shows, it feels a little strange that we don't see much of it here.
  • Any number of CW dramas starring pretty people who were cast because they are pretty. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is terrific as Ike; he has the kind of roughly handsome presence that easily could have carried a complex, morally ambiguous drama. Sadly, the versatile Morgan isn't given nearly enough to do here, and the rest of the cast is full of actors who range from moderately competent to downright wooden. A subplot starring Ike's son Stevie (Steven Strait) is nearly coma-inducing, despite the frequent sexytimes enjoyed by Stevie and his various lady friends; that's how anti-charismatic the young actor is.
  • Third-tier cable programs that show boobs because they can. The first two episodes of "Magic City" boast a lot of what I call "H.B." H.B. is short for "Hey! Boobs!," which denotes the presences of breasts in a scene for one reason, and that reason is: On pay cable, networks can show boobs. (The terminology comes from what I write down in my notebook every time I see nudity that isn't all that justifiable.) Now, I don't mind topless ladies per se (I am a long-time fan of "Spartacus," the Starz drama that scores very high on the CNS, or the Cable Nakedness Scale), and I recognize that there are times when storytellers absolutely must delve into sexuality to add nuance and depth to the tale they're telling. Once in a while, "Magic City" even attempts that sort of thing, which is fine. Other times, there's just a lot of H.B. because, hey, it's Starz! Why not throw some ladybits in there? A classic H.B. example from an early "Magic City" episode: A character strides around the dressing room of the hotel's showgirls, most of whom are topless. We learn absolutely nothing about any of the characters or the story in this scene; there is no point to the it except to show breasts. The approach frankly becomes tiresome after a while, and I began to wonder if the filmmakers -- and the network -- had such little faith in the drama that they felt the need to gussy it up with a lot of random H.B. (Note: H.B. is not the same thing as sexposition, a term critic Myles McNutt invented; sexposition denotes expositional dialogue that is accompanied by nakedness that is meant to distract viewers from the sheer volume of plot mechanics and background being explained. "Magic City" doesn't have much sexposition, so ... there's that.)
  • Every high-end furniture catalog you've ever drooled over. As an advertisement for the kind of furnishings and decor one would find in a late '50s hotel, "Magic City" works really well. This drama can be so slow and sluggish that, on occasion, lusting after the snazzily upholstered couches and gleaming wallpaper was the only thing keeping me awake.
  • "CSI: Miami." Ike, who typically wears a conservative black suit, is constantly putting on and taking off his cool-dude sunglasses. Who does that remind you of?
  • It's a little bewildering that this is yet another Starz project that, like "Boss," "Torchwood: Miracle Day," "Pillars of the Earth," "Crash" and "Camelot," has some compelling or promising elements yet fails to cohere in any consistent way. Aside from "Spartacus," which I will argue to the death is one of the most disciplined shows on television, there's been a certain complacency apparent in various Starz originals. The thing is, slapping together some H.B. with a big star or a sturdy premise isn't exactly going to set the network apart, not when there are so many networks doing so much excellent or reasonably entertaining work. There's a lot of potential in the pay-cable realm; networks working in this arena can do new, different or more challenging things, given the lack of content restrictions. Or they can take the classics and tart them up with style and wit, but "Magic City" doesn't even manage to clear that bar.

    If "Magic City" had done one thing consistently, it's managed to make smoking, drinking, sex, mobsters, criminal activity and carousing kind of flat and listless. There are sidelong glances at the anti-Semitism, sexism and racism of the times, but those things aren't examined with the kind of skeptical, relentless intelligence that "Mad Men" displays. Everything about "Magic City" shows a lack of depth, and the pacing is almost glacial.

    Cool shades, though.

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