Atmosphere trumps complexity in the opening hour of Starz’ Magic City.
In theory, Magic City has many of the ingredients of a terrific television recipe. It unfolds at the dawn of 1959, in an environment teeming with sex, glamour, reckless ambition and compelling criminal elements. Its location is the ritzy Miramar Playa Hotel, and its central character is a man dedicated to keeping that hotel, and all of the excess it represents, alive and well for years to come.
But in all of its focus on razzle-dazzle, the opening hour of Starz’ new drama sidesteps the trickier elements of hour-long television: complex, fascinating characters and a string of surprises for them and for us. In the end, Magic City offers plenty of treats for the eye and almost none for the mind and heart. With few exceptions, we know where this pilot is going well before it gets there.
As the episode opens, we meet Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of Watchmen), as he hustles to prepare the Miramar Playa for a marquee event: A Frank Sinatra concert that could make or break the hotel. The Miramar, you see, has been caught in a run of bad luck and Ike needs a full and happy house (and a full and happy Sinatra) if he’s going to keep the place up and running.
The character of Ike, though surely meant to be mysterious and unpredictable, is a fairly straight-forward one: It’s not long before we learn he’s got a hot young wife (Olga Kurylenko of Quantum of Solace), shady ties to organized crime and a crippling amount of debt. Unfortunately, that’s just about all we know, or need to know, about Mr. Evans by the end of the hour. There’s a sizable difference between being enigmatic and being a cipher, and Ike unfortunately falls into the latter category. Though he makes several references to the stress in his life, we see and feel very little of it, and so does he.
Ike’s primary rival in the pilot is Mikey Strauss, an unflappable union lawyer whose picket lines might mean the death of the Miramar. In an effort to break the union protests and get his employees back to work, Ike soon finds himself making a deal with mobster business partner, Ben Diamond. With that agreement struck (and once Ben trots out the story of “the frog and the scorpion” as if it’s something no one has heard before), you can take a wild guess at what happens to Mr. Strauss at the end of the first episode.
In the run up to the Sinatra concert, Ike assigns his adult son Stevie (totally free of personality, and yet seemingly irresistible to every woman onscreen) to get a shipment of booze from Fort Lauderdale to the Miramar in time for the big show. Stevie recruits some African-American boxers for the job, and the drinks arrive at the hotel as scheduled and with surprisingly little drama or complication.
(To the show’s credit, however, it has already shown more racial diversity by the end of its first hour than Mad Men did by the end of its first year.)
While out on his whiskey-wrangling mission, Stevie crosses paths with a mysterious woman named Lily, who offers up a double-entendre that links Stevie’s testicles to the dropping of the New Year’s Eve ball. Subtlety is not a strength of Magic City.
In what is probably the episode’s only tense sequence, Stevie has sex with Lily shortly before discovering that she is, in fact, Ben’s wife. This is a terrific reveal, and it would’ve been far more effective if we hadn’t seen Lily swimming in Ben’s pool midway through the episode.
There’s also a very short subplot involving Ike’s younger and shyer son, Danny, as he attempts to woo one of the hotel maids, Mercedes. Danny is successful in his effort, but it remains to be seen whether Magic City will fare as well. So far, this series seems like just another pretty face.