The most startling moment of all the eight episodes of Magic City‘s first season arrives in the form of a dead dog. While talking on the phone, eccentric gangster Ben Diamond (Danny Huston) becomes annoyed by the barking of his dog. He politely sets down the phone, walks outside, and shoots the dog in the head right in front of his wife Lily (Jessica Marais). Upon seeing her shocked face, he responds, “I was on the phone,” as if he was explaining why he decided to pull the weeds out of the garden.
A scene like this, of course, is supposed to show us how bad a person Ben is. He’s power-hungry, a trait that extends into his sex life: rather than having sex with his wife, he prefers to watch her touch herself through a two-way mirror on the floor of his closet. Despite the few acts of aggression he commits throughout season one, he for the most part behaves like he does in the boudoir. He watches from a distance, opting to whisper commands from his rotating sun chair instead of being the one to pull the trigger or yank the garrote.
In the first episode of the series, he sits back in comfort as Isaac “Ike” Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) signs over half of the stakes in his glamorous hotel, the Miramar Playa, in exchange for the quelling of the union uprising that threatened to shut down the hotel. Little is told of Ben’s past, but what can be inferred from the power-plays he makes is that he is not a person to be crossed.
But really, this shouldn’t be surprising. The reason there’s a deficient backstory to Ben isn’t because of a lack of talent in the writers, although much of the hardboiled dialogue that lines the pages of these scripts is thin. Rather, it’s because Magic City is structurally weak at its base. Even when all of the actors are at their best, the show feels like a giant cut-and-paste job. We get a heaping spoonful of Mad Men-like period detail, plumes of cigarette smoke, a pinch of bloody death scenes a la The Sopranos and, since this is Starz, liberal usage of nudity and (unnecessary) sex scenes.
Plots twist and turn predictably, and the surprisingly open-ended finalé excepted, there’s not a whole lot that comes out of left field. The second you know Ben is a mobster, you don’t need to know anything else. You know he’s a very bad guy, and he’s probably killed plenty of people in order to afford his luxurious home and copious amounts of cocktails. His story is the same as like-minded men before him.
One big thing Magic City has going for it, in spite of all the generic material, is that rather than leaving you bored, it leaves you frustrated. There’s enough on screen to make one want the show to succeed instead of relegating it to the dustbin of Failed Attempts at Aping HBO. The strongest of the program’s qualities is its visual flair, which is enough to keep even an apathetic viewer in.
Post-Cuban Revolution Miami is rendered in sumptuous detail in every episode, culminating in the “wedding cake of a hotel” that is the Miramar Playa. One room in particular, documented in a helpful featurette included in the three-disc season one set, is the Atlantis Room, the underwater bar depicted in the opening credits. (Which, incidentally, is the best-shot credit sequence I’ve seen in a while). It’s the sort of venue one would drool over after seeing it on a Yahoo! front page article like “Most Unique Bars in America.” The Miramar Playa ends up becoming its own character, unsurprising given the lengths people will go to keep it safe. The visual detail alone is enough to qualify Magic City as a guilty pleasure.
And guilty pleasure it is, since the actors here aren’t handed much in the depth department. Dean Morgan is left just to brood as Ike, a Don Draper-like character, albeit with a more violent past. His son Stevie (Steven Strait) gets the pleasure of bedding multiple beautiful women throughout this season, considerable achievement since he hasn’t an ounce of charisma. Stevie’s brother Danny (Christian Cooke) is really only here to provide romantic interaction with Mercedes (Dominik Garcia-Lorido), a young Cuban hotel maid whose mother is still trapped back in her home country. The political drama that could have been brought out in this storyline was utterly wasted, thrown on the backburner so that footage of Ike suavely taking off and putting on his sunglasses could dominate the screen.
Most of the time we can excuse the actors for the follies of Magic City since it always feels like the show is going to break past the cusp of being just a bland attempt to capture the, if you’ll pardon me for just a moment, magic of other successful TV programs. Stories about mobsters are cool, sure, and neo-noir lighting goes fantastic with serious men smoking thick cigars, but to be successful there’s got to be more to good television than old tropes like those ones. It’s all very pretty, yes, but like the woefully underwritten women of the Miramar Playa, there’s only so much visual teasing can do.
After a botched hit ordered by Ben, Ike confronts him and tries to persuade the volatile gangster away from pursuing more violence. “You got the wrong woman,” Ike tells him in an attempt to show him the unwanted effects of violence. With a smile so shiny it nearly distracts you from his tan lines, Ben retorts, “That’s why God made extra bullets.” This is not only the best quip in Magic City‘s noir-infatuated lexicon; it’s also the essence of the program distilled into a single line: when something goes wrong, just throw in some more flashes and bangs. There’s nothing like blood, sex, and booze to spice up a tale of a (sort of) honest businessman forced to deal with the mob. Let the visual flair dominate, and maybe the other problems with characterization and innovative storytelling will go away. But Ben’s world isn’t perfect, and though he may hold a lot of power it’s clear by the time the finalé concludes that things aren’t going to resolve themselves with dramatic gesture. There’s always got to be something more.
Included on the DVD set are a few featurettes documenting the various aspects of the show, ranging from the cars used to the set design. For the most part these aren’t anything stellar, but the one involving the Miramar Playa and the style of Magic City are definitely worth a look for a show as aesthetically pleasing as this one.