Judge Clark Douglas is proud of his hotel. It's just a towel closet, but it's his own.
Miami Beach, 1959. The beautiful life is about to get ugly.
"You think you're smart. You're not smarter than everybody."
Facts of the Case
At a glance, you'd assume that life is pretty good for a guy like Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Watchmen). It's 1959, and Ike just so happens to be the owner of the most glamorous hotel in Miami: The Miramar Playa. The most powerful celebrities, politicians and businessmen in the country can frequently be seen wandering in and out of Ike's glitzy establishment. Alas, there's a great deal of trouble beneath the surface. Ike finds himself forced to go into business with savage mobster Ben Diamond (Danny Huston, Children of Men), a relationship that tends to produce greater risk than reward. On top of that, he's attempting to deal with a handful of financial woes and striking union workers staging constant protests outside his hotel.
Ike is married to Vera Evans (Olga Kurylenko, Quantum of Solace), a young ex-dancer who has more depth than her trophy-wife image would suggest. Vera is making her best efforts to be a good mother to Ike's teenage daughter Lauren (Taylor Blackwell), but would like to have a child of her own with Ike. Unfortunately, that hasn't been particularly easy for her.
Ike also has two adult sons: Stevie (Steven Strait, Stop-Loss) and Danny (Christian Cooke, Cemetery Junction). The former is a bartender who has recently struck up a risky relationship with Ben Diamond's wife Lily (Jessica Marais, Legend of the Seeker), while the latter is an ambitious young man who dreams of a successful law career.
Over the course of eight episodes, Magic City: The Complete First Season presents the struggles, victories and failures of the Evans family.
Considering the staggering amount of critical praise Mad Men has received since it hit the airwaves back in 2007, it's no surprise that other networks have attempted to ape AMC's success. Unfortunately, these high-profile knock-offs have been pretty underwhelming. ABC's Pan Am had strong period design, but struggled to provide engaging storytelling. NBC's The Playboy Club also had strong period design, but featured obnoxious, one-note characters and dubious thematic content. Early on, it seems as if the new Starz drama Magic City is just another good-looking, generally unsatisfying period piece that mimics Mad Men without recapturing its insight or magic. However, as the season proceeds, the show quietly transforms into something distinctive and worthwhile. It's certainly not Mad Men, but it's not too shabby, either.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Ike Evans is yet another of those beloved "flawed protagonists" that populate cable dramas these days, but thankfully he's not a tossed-together amalgam of other well-regarded TV characters (I'm looking at you, Boss). Yes, Ike's another guy who leads a double life and gets his hands dirty behind closed doors, but he's saddled with a deep-rooted sense of guilt that makes that feel fresh and compelling. Ike genuinely wants to be a good man: he's faithful to his wife (not a remarkable accomplishment until you realize that this is a pay cable drama), he's a good father to his children, he tries to treat people with courtesy and he occasionally goes out of his way to do the right thing. Even so, there are moments when his family or business are threatened by larger forces, and during those moments he's willing to compromise himself. It's hard to say just yet whether Magic City will transform into a variation on Breaking Bad (with Ike slowly succumbing to every form of corruption; perhaps becoming the next Ben Diamond in the process) or whether there's any hope for the man to take the high road, but Morgan does a terrific job of selling the character's inner conflict and remains compelling throughout.
The location and period design is attractive (and the folks at Starz predictably do their best to keep viewers interested by tossing in copious amounts of nudity—seriously, there are some episodes that make Game of Thrones look relatively subdued in this department), but the characters are what make the show engaging during the relatively uneventful first half of the season. In addition to Morgan, we have a terrific performance from Danny Huston as the violent Ben Diamond. Huston has played many villains in recent years, but Magic City marks the first time he's played someone genuinely scary. In one scene, Diamond's wife playfully invites him to take her as a human sacrifice and rip her heart out, which might be weirdly cute if we weren't convinced that Diamond just might do it. Alex Rocco also has a good time as Ike's cantankerous father, though he's underused. Olga Kurylenko demonstrates that she has some real acting chops later in the season and plays some rather heartbreaking notes. Even the relative newcomers playing Ike's kids manage to be convincing human beings rather than typically obnoxious TV kids.
Still, there's no question that Magic City takes a while to get cooking. The storytelling in the first half of the season tends to be both sluggish and clunky, as a host of fairly uninvolving subplots (the crusty grandfather doesn't want to attend his granddaughter's bat mitzvah because he doesn't like religion!) work their way towards predictable destinations (he goes anyway, because he loves his granddaughter!). In the fifth episode, the dramatic stakes are raised a bit and the show actually manages to find its footing as it heads towards the finish line. There's some slow but steady growth as the season progresses, which gives me a good deal of hope about the show's chances to turn into something really exceptional as it heads into season two.
Magic City: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) sports a reasonably satisfying 1080p/1.78:1 transfer that highlights the show's attractive digital cinematography. Daytime scenes tend to be flat-out gorgeous, with the sun-baked locations looking dazzling and loaded with eye-popping detail. However, darker scenes occasionally suffer from slightly excessive noise, and the image has a tendency to look rather flat at times. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track is quite good, offering an appealing blend of shimmering original score and period-appropriate songs (well, mostly—pretty sure Randy Newman wasn't around in 1959) on the soundtrack. Dialogue is just a little muffled in a couple of scenes, but it's a fleeting issue that never really becomes troublesome. The atmospheric touches are light but effective, helping to enhance the overall atmosphere of the show. Supplements are limited to a handful of pleasant but mostly disposable featurettes: "Starz Studios: Magic City" (13 minutes), "The Cars of Magic City" (2 minutes), "The Style of Magic City" (4 minutes), "The Golden Age of Music" (7 minutes) and "Miami Beach: The Real Magic City" (3 minutes). Not too impressed with the EPK-style offerings, I must confess.
Magic City isn't quite a great TV show, but there's a lot to like. The atmosphere is appealing, the characters are well-drawn, the languid pace is actually a bit refreshing, and the show doesn't get obnoxiously cutesy with winking period humor. The relatively short length of the season makes the first season quite easy to digest, too. There may be something here, so let's keep an eye on this one, eh?
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