Anchor Bay // 2012 // 419 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // October 24th, 2012
"You know what the Miramar is worth without me running it? It's a pile of sand, silverware, and towels." -- Ike Evans
If you've read the novels of Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard, you've seen a lot of fictional Florida seaminess. Magic City goes back in time to present a prequel of sorts to the latter-day Florida crime novel. There's no ex-governor going wild in the Glades, but Magic City: The Complete First Season has just about everything: corruption, gambling, prostitution, murder, adultery, and mobsters. Since it's set in 1959 Miami Beach, plus it's also got scopitones in the hotel bar and gratuitous synchronized swimming.
On New Year's Eve 1958, Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Red Dawn) starts off by awakening from a nightmare. He's the owner of Miami Beach's Miramar Hotel, which is ringing the New Year in with a picket line, even as plans are being finalized for a shindig that night with Frank Sinatra singing. Thus, things aren't much better when he wakes up. It could be worse, though, and will be in 1959: the union boss is going to turn up dead, Ike's son Stevie (Steven Strait, City Island) is having an affair with the wife (Jessica Marais, Legend of the Seeker) of a mobster known as The Butcher (Danny Huston, Children of Men), and he's going to have a rough time protecting call girl Judi Silver (Elena Satine, Just Go With It) from both the mob and the district attorney. Worst of all, his son Danny (Christian Cooke, Demons) wants to become a prosecutor.
Viewers might want to check out the "Starz Studios: Magic City" behind-the-scenes featurette before watching the show. It provides a map of the characters, which is helpful, since there's a lot going on.
If, as I did, you just plunge into the show, it'll seem confusing at first, but it helps that Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Ike Evans is fascinating to watch. He's got a cocky confidence as he deals with picketers, staff, mobsters, the law, and his own family. Ike's sure he's the good guy here; you'll be sure just long enough to draw you in. As the show goes on, you'll realize he's a good father and a loyal friend, but his ethics -- which include murder and betting on a fixed fight -- leave a lot to be desired.
Of course, 1959 Miami Beach wasn't such an ethical place, if you believe Magic City. At one point, the DA gets information out of a witness through starvation and psychological pressure that includes keeping her in the dark, literally. Ike's defiant under the thumb of The Butcher, and it will take some squirming -- er, maneuvering -- to keep control of his hotel.
Magic City was made for Starz, and has all the pay cable bells and whistles, including bare breasts and bums, profanity, and bloody murders. Still, the less bare, profane, and violent characters end up generating a lot of good will. You'll probably find Ike's wife Vera (Olga Kurylenko, Quantum of Solace) rather sweet as she tries to be a good mother to his children by an earlier marriage, although she shows a hint of toughness as Season One draws to a close. There's an innocence in the romance between Danny and Mercedes (Dominik Garcia-Lorido, City Island), his childhood sweetheart who works as a maid at the Miramar.
Magic City thrives on foreshadowing -- Sinatra singing "I've Got the World on a String" as the first signs emerge that Ike's world is going to fall off that string -- and contrasts -- the juxtaposition of beauty contestants and dead bodies. They're stylishly done, but not too surprising.
Since the producers of Magic City couldn't time travel back to 1959 Miami Beach to film, the show mostly relies on sets and hotel locations. The centerpiece of these is a hotel bar that lets patrons peek into the swimming pool, a novelty which signals both the opulence of the Miramar and the voyeuristic quality of Magic City. There's always something happening -- a gala concert, a beauty pageant, a boxing match -- to suggest that the Miramar is the height of 1959 glamour. Featurettes describe the show's attention to sets, clothes, and music, and that detail pays off in a production that looks and sounds great.
The extras are promotional in nature, but they do provide information about the sets, characters, and city. Unless you absolutely hate the show, you'll want to check them out.
Creator Mitch Glazer seems to have been shooting for tragedy on a Shakespearean level. At times, though, you might find Magic City more like a TV-MA version of Dallas, and it's bound to get even sudsier in Season Two as the characters try to get out of their various hopeless dilemmas. Still, Dallas had a long run as the world's favorite guilty pleasure, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan makes a great businessman antihero.
Of course, that's presuming you want to watch a risque pay cable drama in the first place. While the producers would undoubtedly swear that all their choices -- which include a naked woman swimming through the titles -- are for dramatic impact, some scenes are pretty much just there for titillation, such as, say, a visit to the showgirls' dressing room as the women sit around bare.
Magic City is made for a niche audience interested in coolness past, and that audience will find an eight-part drama that starts out slowly but gets more engaging with each chapter, not to mention a lot of coolness past. While it doesn't always live up to its ambitions, those lofty aims help make it a show you'll want to watch in a sitting or two.
Not guilty. Bring on the sand, silverware, and towels.
Review content copyright © 2012 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 419 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated