The Verdict: Magic CityGlitz, crime and sex on the beach

NOSTALGIA FOR POST-WWII America has swept across popular culture like a monstrous tidal wave. Sparked by the stunning success of AMC’s Mad Men, demand for retro cars, mod-style suits, and skinny ties have skyrocketed. Inevitably, every TV producer in the country has seen the trend gaining momentum with little sign of slowing down and found a way to toss their felt fedoras in the ring. The mad rush to the ‘60s table has led to a number of unfortunate endeavors—just last fall, The Playboy Club and Pan-Am quickly found their ways off the air.

The latest drama to cash in on the phenomenon is Magic City, which aired its first episode on Starz this past Friday. Because of its 1958 setting, throwback style, and a cast full of smoldering actors and actresses, the most immediate and obvious comparison is to Mad Men. But this is no midtown ad agency we’re dealing with here.

Magic City centers on the swankiest hotel in Miami Beach, The Miramar Playa, owned and operated by the endlessly complex Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Evans is at once the magnanimous proprietor of his establishment, as well as the kind of ruthless and well-connected businessman needed to keep the hotel afloat in times of financial distress. Early in the first episode, this dualism bubbles to the surface during Evans’ confrontation with the local hotel workers union. Faced with a vociferous picket line blocking the front steps of his hotel, Evans drops a union member with a haymaker right hand. As he makes his way back into the building, the hotelier pulls aside a new bellhop and does his fatherly best to clue him in to some of the hotel’s strategies for making its customers feel they’re in the lap of luxury.

This two-fold nature is something that will seemingly permeate the entire series—the façade of luxury at The Miramar Playa hides the more devious machinations that keep the hotel up and running.

Morgan delivers a compelling performance as the enigmatic Evans, finding his range as the stern, but caring father of two sons and a young daughter; the smitten husband to his beautiful wife Vera; the shrewd businessman who keeps the gears of his hotel turning; and the cold criminal who will do what it takes to ensure his empire doesn’t fall. Comfortable and convincing in each vastly different situation, Morgan slides easily into the role of Isaac Evans, giving off an air of masculine confidence while displaying subtle cracks that illustrate the vulnerabilities that are sure to haunt him later in the series.

Failing in his own methods of diplomacy with the union agitators, Evans is forced to employ more persuasive tactics. He turns to local crime boss Ben Diamond, played by an equally well-cast Danny Huston. Diamond is a lush with a taste for power and a heavy fist. He senses Evans’ financial weakness and leans on him for control of The Miramar in exchange for handling the union problem.

While the writing is a little uneven throughout the premiere, the story was multi-faceted and moved well in the end, keeping me signed on for at least a few more episodes. The trendy fashion is a huge draw, as has been the case in recent times with other shows. Evans’ dark, slim suits and classic wayfarer sunglasses may owe a lot to Don Draper’s wardrobe, but they rival it at the same time. The sex is sure to sell as well, although hopefully some of the more unnecessary nude shots will be cut moving forward as the show picks up its own steam.

Starting out, the series is trying to get on its feet by bombarding viewers with episodes packed full of separate storylines. As a result, there are sure to be more bumps in the road when it comes to the scripts. For all its faults, though, the show displays some serious promise going forward.

Magic City hasn’t cast its spell over me yet, but I’m willing to give it the chance to try.

Previous installments of “The Verdict”:

Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie