Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Pilot Review: Magic City

Magic City (Fridays at 10:00 on Starz)

Despite its best efforts lately, Starz just can't compete with the original programming on rival premium channels HBO and Showtime. Their lineup includes only two other dramas (Spartacus and Boss), neither of which has achieved the level critical or commercial success as its competitors' programming. They're not likely to buck that trend with the newest addition to their schedule, Magic City, which officially premieres April 6. It's beautifully shot, written and acted, but it's a little bit old hat.

It's the eve of 1959 in Miami Beach, and Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is in crisis mode: his hotel, the luxurious Miramar Playa, is hosting a New Year's Eve concert for the country's elite featuring Frank Sinatra and all of his workers are on strike. They want to unionize, and Ike just wants the evening to go off without a hitch. As a last ditch effort to ensure this, he goes to his 49% partner, Ben "The Butcher" Diamond (Danny Huston), to put some pressure on the union representative. But Diamond has a price: the remainder of the assets of the Miramar. Diamond initially fronted the money to get the hotel built and then collected his share from Havana; but with Cuba about to fall to Castro, he has returned to Miami to make Ike's life harder. Not helping matters is Ike's womanizing son Stevie (Steven Strait), who has his sights set on Diamond's lovely new wife Lily (Jessica Marais). Other than his financial troubles, Ike seems to lead a charmed life. He's a widower with a beautiful new bride (Olga Kurylenko), a second son working at the hotel (Christian Cooke), and an idyllic location in which to grow old surrounded by family. But Diamond's further involvement in the hotel's affairs leads to some dire consequences for everyone, as he drags along his mob connections and his short temper with him.

Overall Magic City is a really enjoyable watch. It's supremely acted and crafted by creator Mitch Glazer, and the first hour flies by. Morgan (Supernatural, Grey's Anatomy) is a totally charming leading man, carrying off Ike with ease and just the right amount of tension. Huston is in shark mode, chewing apart the scenery until it bursts. Strait's "bad son" character is the most interesting thus far, from his first scene crashing a car into a swamp as a side effect of road head to a semi-incestuous infatuation with his new stepmother. He's a sex machine, oozing machismo and youthful zest. The women take the background so far, unless it's to bare their breasts for absolutely no reason (this is pay cable, after all). It's a tight ensemble drama (and a large one at that) which is still in introduction mode, so things can likely only go up from there. The pacing is rapid; dream sequences fade into scenes of violence and nightclub performances to images of sex and nudity. But Glazer's script still takes its time in setting up the many characters we will spend the next nine hours with and gives each of them a distinct voice, however muted it may be after just one episode.

The design is also rather incredible. Shots of the sprawling Miami beaches set next to nostalgic views of finned Cadillacs bring the era to life with remarkable detail. This certainly is no Pan Am with its whitewashed view of what it means to be alive at the time; these people drink, smoke like chimneys, sunbathe nude, curse up a storm, and revel in it all. The music perfectly captures the lacsidaisical nature of having nowhere all that important to go or anything all that important to do, other than enjoy a day at the beach in a high-end hotel. That's not to say that everything about Magic City is laid back and rosy; the back drop of Castro's Cuban takeover creates a tension between the characters and the location, and the possibly non-kosher way in which Ike acquired the hotel adds a dark side to the proceedings. It's kind of like Mad Men meets The Sopranos, which can be a lot of fun to watch but just proves that the show isn't exactly breaking new ground. And that's the only real problem I can find here. It does have a bit of a been-there-done-that feeling in its tone, and it's clearly developing into little more than a very well done soap.

There is, however, a lot of promise in Magic City. Whether it builds on that promise will determine whether or not it can draw the kinds of audiences Starz needs it to in order to establish themselves as a serious competitor among the premium channels.

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