The TV Series:
Another year, another Mad Men clone. The lavish Starz production Magic City might substitute a Miami Beach resort hotel in 1959 for a Manhattan ad agency in the mid-'60s, but there's no question that it owes a big debt to what Don Draper and company paved the way for. On its own terms, however, it's mildly interesting enough to stand on its own. Although the torrid drama lacks the complexity of Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire, the show's luxe production values and accent on sex and violence place it miles ahead of forgettable fluff like Pan-Am and The Playboy Club.
As Magic City unfolds, it's New Years Eve 1958 and Miami business magnate Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) presides over the action at the glamorous Miramar Playa Hotel. While the hotel, a luxe Mid-century Modern jewel of the Atlantic coast, attracts high-profile entertainers and politicians alike to its sunny, decadent surroundings, a host of unpleasantries bubble under the surface. Against the revolutions going on in Cuba 200 miles away, frequent labor disputes from the hotel's staff threaten to collapse Ike's carefully built empire. Ike has reluctantly gone into a deal with Chicago gangster Ben "The Butcher" Diamond (Danny Huston) to keep the Miramar Playa afloat. Being associated with the underworld brings the hotel its own colorful element - prostitutes hang out at the bar, and an illegal gambling ring is operated from the back room of the hotel's lingerie store - but those are small potatoes compared with the revelation that Ike's loyal son, Stevie (Steven Strait), is carrying on a hot affair with Diamond's sexy wife, Lily (Jessica Marais).
With all that intrigue, those expecting a Goodfellas-like riot of sex and violence might be somewhat let down. The fact that it's on Starz allows a lot more leeway on that front, however, and the many scenes with young, attractive actors seen in various states of undress counts as one superficial advantage it has over Mad Men and the others. The show also has an impressively large budget to work with, money well spent on the cavernous, detailed sets (including that astonishing lobby) and many scenes with dozens of impeccably dressed extras milling about. As hard as the show tries to amp up the mob 'n money spectacle, it is at heart a disarmingly low-key family drama. Many scenes are devoted to Ike, a relatively recent widower, making a go of his second marriage to Vera (Olga Kurylenko), a lovely yet fiercely intelligent woman who abandoned her dancing career to make an unsteady adjustment to hostessing visiting dignitaries and being a stepmom to Ike's bratty daughter, Lauren (Taylor Blackwell). There's also a bit of brotherly tension between Ike's two handsome sons, with the wild Stevie serving as a marked contrast to his straight-arrow brother Danny (Christian Cooke), a law student deeply in love with Mercedes Lozaro (Dominik Garcia-Lorido), a Cuban-American maid at the Miramar Playa.
All in all, Magic City's first season serves up enough decently gritty drama to have kept me entertained. It takes some adjustments to accept the blatant way the producers set up Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Ike Evans as essentially a Don Draper type, the confident self-made family man with a host of secrets (at least he isn't a womanizer like Draper - not yet, anyhow). The show's understated tone also takes some time to warm up to, although in the end I ended up respecting the filmmakers more for placing simmering drama and historic accuracy over soapy theatrics. From a purely visual standpoint, it's fantastic - perfectly researched, showy yet never over-the-top. The acting is uniformly well done, as well (epecially Danny Huston, perfectly charismatic and menacing). Magic City isn't one of those shows that uses its well-defined characters and okay story to make a grand statement, however. Often its message doesn't go any deeper than "Gee, weren't the '50s a sexy decade?" - but sometimes that's enough.
As Magic City embarks on a second season, here's hoping the producers took a good look at these initial eight episodes and decided to kick up the storytelling a notch. It's a decent show, nicely acted and beautiful to look at. Unlike Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire, though, the screenplays are missing that intangible something that would prompt a viewer to breathlessly await whatever surprises the next episode will bring.
Note: images are not taken off the blu-ray edition. Photography © 2012 Starz Entertainment.
Anchor Bay's blu-ray edition of Magic City comes packaged as a hardback book-style fold-out with each of its three discs nestled in transparent plastic holders. With a panoramic photo of the cast behind the disc holders, it makes for a classy look that matches the show's visual spendor.
Fantastic - the 1.78:1 image is about as good as it gets for blu-ray. Shot digitally with some honey-yellow sweetening added in post production, the show's photography is given a top-notch treatement on disc. Colors are vibrant and nicely balanced, and the dark scenes have a lot of depth.
The set's Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack impresses enough to be noticeable even on my non-tricked out setup. I could actually hear the way ambient sounds in certain scenes were placed behind the main dialogue track, and there was a noticeably warm and homey balance between dialogue, sound effects, and Daniele Luppi's atmospheric score. A mono soundtrack in Spanish, along with subtitles in English for the hearing impaired and Spanish, is also provided.
A handful of Starz-produced featurettes are included on disc three, slickly produced but containing a few decent insights and factoids. Starz Studios: Magic City (13:33) serves as a nice, spoiler-free overview of what the series is about; in The Cars of Magic City (1:32), cast members discuss which of their characters' preferred transportation is the sweetest; The Style of Magic City (4:02) discusses the show's impressively researched costume design; Building an Empire (1:32) gives a too-brief overview of the logistics of building a period hotel from scratch; The Golden Age of Music (7:42) delves into the show's use of period and contemporary music; and Miami Beach: The Real Magic City covers the lore and appeal of Magic City's glam-tastic setting.
The debut season of Starz's period drama Magic City reveals a show that's beautifully made and nicely acted, but perhaps not gutsy enough to escape the Mad Men-imitation tag. The blu-ray edition serves as a nice showcase for the show's stunning production design and immersive music, however. If you can find it used (easy; my local used movie 'n music emporium had three pre-owned copies of Magic City on its shelves, rare for a show so recent), you might find yourself surprised at how diverting it is. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.