“Every ambition has a dark side.”
And that includes the world of the cable television series. The world of cable series has brought us some of the most ambitious and compelling television shows we’ve ever seen. There’s no censor board to answer to, so that means the shows have the freedom to expand into visual areas that have long been taboo on network shows. Nudity, sexuality, language, and even violence are often huge parts of these kinds of shows. Because there isn’t really a ratings pressure, the shows can also cater to more specialized audiences. Of course, it’s not completely true there are no ratings issues. For these networks it’s getting the carriers to distribute their networks, and for some it’s signing up premium members. There’s little doubt that HBO did enjoy subscriptions completely tied to having The Sopranos. But that kind of programming is no longer rare. It no longer shocks us with its novelty, and the standards for quality have been established at a high level. When you watch a cable show, you don’t just expect R material. You expect film-quality production values on the small screen. You also expect quality writing and compelling drama. In the case of Starz new Magic City, you’ll have to settle for 2 out of 3. You get the edgy R material and outstanding production values. Unfortunately, the series misses more than it connects on the compelling drama front.
It’s Miami, 1958, New Year’s Eve. Ike Evans (Morgan) owns the most swank hotel in the city. It’s the Miramar Playa. He bought the land at a song from his deceased wife’s family, and he’s turned it into a luxury city where the likes of Frank Sinatra call home. He’s determined to make it without caving to the influence of his minority partner who happens to go by the name of The Butcher. He’s Ben Diamond (Huston), and he wants the hotel to become a kingdom of gambling and other profitable vices. Sure, Ike allows a little prostitution and backroom bookie action, but he wants to keep the hotel pretty much legit. That’s hard with a bank nut that runs $65,000 a month.
He has a young wife, Vera (Kurylenko) who was once the sensational Vera Cruz, a Cuban Tropicana dancer. He has two sons. Danny (Cooke) is studying law and doesn’t want any part of the hotel business. He’s being recruited by the DA’s office in order to get a man inside. They don’t really want Ike. They want Ben Diamond, and if they have to squeeze Ike to get to him, then that’s what you might call collateral damage. Danny’s in love with Mercedes (Garcia-Lorido), who is a maid at the hotel and daughter to Ike’s hotel manager Victor (Vazquez). Victor’s wife is still trapped in Cuba, and Ike’s trying to get her out safely. Stevie (Strait) is Ike’s youngest son. Stevie tends bar in the hotel’s famous Atlantis Bar (remember that Miami bar in Analyze This?). He does want the life of his father. He’s also a bit of a womanizer. But he’s fallen in love with Lily Diamond (Marais) who also loves him. They have a rather torrid affair. The only trouble is that Lily is The Butcher’s wife, and he is the jealous type.
On the night of the pilot, who can’t help but be thinking that 90 miles away Michael Corelone has just found out his brother’s a rat, and the island is falling into Castro’s control. The show doesn’t want you to forget those Godfather overtones. This series leans quite heavily on that film. The musical interludes appear almost pulled directly from that film. You also get a lot of the same camera angles and sepia-toned images that appear quite like the 1972 classic. It’s no secret that we have two sons, one who wants his father’s life and one who doesn’t. I have a feeling that the one who doesn’t will end up in control someday. The comparisons are endless. But they end with the production and plot points. Magic City is no Godfather, no matter how much it wants you to believe that it is.
Part of the problem can be found in the acting. I love Jeffrey Dean Morgan. He was great on Grey’s Anatomy and Supernatural. I just don’t buy him here. It’s almost as if the actor’s not sure who exactly Ike is. He plays it too inconsistently for us to ever really buy him as real. The women on the series have much the same problem. They don’t ever feel real to me, and this is in spite of the wonderful production design that gives us as authentic a surrounding as you could hope for. From set design to wardrobe, this series is absolutely wonderful, but the characters just don’t ever appear to fit in with their surroundings. The one very notable exception is Danny Huston who plays The Butcher, Ben Diamond. His portrayal is nothing short of incredible. He’s a brute of a mobster, and Huston scares the crap out of me every time I see him. He’s totally convincing. Huston overpowers every scene that he’s in. He does this in the most subtle ways. He displays his violent danger by merely a glance. His eyes are terrifying, to say the least. I can see a series focused on this character as being far more compelling. I find myself wanting to see his world and caring so much less in Ike’s. Ike is just one of his many victims, and I’m so eager to move on to his other prey. I’m quite sure that he’s the reason the show has any following at all.
The writing suffers from a serious pacing problem. The story doesn’t move along fast enough to entertain. It’s almost as if the filmmakers are lingering just so you’ll continue to admire the wonderful design. It’s a text book example of style over substance. I have no doubt the crew work hard to put this show on. I wish the series itself was worthy of the effort.
Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec. This is a period piece that utilizes a lot of dark sepia-tone to the visual style. It works, and the high-definition image is absolutely convincing. Black levels are quite high, and the image is razor-sharp. Colors don’t really dominate most of the time, but there are moments where they do pop.
The Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 is pretty tame. Dialog is perfectly paced, and the music has a nice dynamic edge to it. There is little low end here, and the surrounds are pretty much front and center.
Starz Studios – Magic City: (13:33) This is completely a promo piece that aired on the network.
The Cars Of Magic City: (1:32) A closer look at the vintage cars.
The Style Of Magic City: (4:02) A look at the fashion and set design.
Building An Empire: (1:32) Set construction.
The Golden Age Of Music: (7:42) A look at how music selection adds to the atmosphere.
Miami Beach – The Real Magic City: (3:29) A look at the history of the city.
Starz got it right with The Boss. Here I think they got caught in a trap of showing off what they could do. Even the extras almost exclusively concentrate on style. There is little coverage of the drama. I don’t see a bright future for Magic City. I hope they might consider spinning off the Ben Diamond character. That would be something to see. Of course, I’m sure that the show’s cast and crew will tell us that they’re capable of greatness. “Prove it!”