On the surface, the Starz original drama "Magic City" would seem to have everything. It's not hard to imagine the pitch when creating this adult oriented mob drama: Let's combine the period detail that works so well in "Mad Men" with the gritty gangster vibe that made "The Sopranos" such a success. I'd like to say that I made up these comparisons, but both were used in the aggressive advertising campaign that Starz used to launch the show (so clearly it's a side-by-side that they are comfortable with). But that's part of the problem. Instead of crafting a unique product to wow the audience, "Magic City" is covering some pretty familiar territory with its central themes. The primary plot points are so similar to dozens of other mob related stories that it's almost impossible not to make comparisons. Don't get me wrong, there are tons of great elements within "Magic City" and I think it has the potential (should it return) to develop into something quite grand. As of Season One, though, it is a show that is still finding its way dramatically.
The story of "Magic City" takes place in Miami Beach circa 1959. Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a visionary hotelier, has just opened the exclusive Miramar Hotel. It's a tumultuous time. Evans is combating an underworld business partner (a great Danny Huston), fending off inquiries from the District Attorney's office, dealing with a crisis in Cuba, opposing unionization, and dealing with a family that all share responsibilities within the resort. It's a great environment for drama. Add that the hotel features talent such as Sinatra (not shown) and hosts gala events for Jackie Kennedy (not shown), and it's an incredible world mixing fact with fiction. There are dozens of characters battling for screen presence, though, within these eight episodes of Season One and the balance can sometimes be out of proportion.
Technical Production: Without a doubt, the real star of "Magic City" are its production values. The sets, costume design, cinematography, and musical score rival anything on TV today. The show is absolutely gorgeous!
Danny Huston: Over-the-top and chewing every bit of scenery, when Huston hits the screen--the pulse of the show raises a few notches. As the primary villain, the program is well served by the gleefully unpleasant Huston.
Cast: I really like the primary cast led by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Steven Strait as his eldest son carries one of the more interesting story threads with Jessica Marais (as Huston's wife). I also liked Elena Satine as a working girl who gets in over her head as well as supporting turns by Kelly Lynch, Alex Rocco, Matt Ross and Michael Rispoli.
Family Life: The show still hasn't fit Evans' new wife in as effectively as I'd like and moments of domesticity can be either great or momentum draining, still finding a balance.
Cuban Storyline: Evans' business assistant/employee Yul Vasquez has a wife he's trying to get out of the country, but as he'd never been developed--I found this storyline rather flat.
Young Love: Evans' youngest son (Christian Cooke) is involved with Vasquez's daughter. The story grinds to a halt when the two are together. The young lady in question is the one member of the cast that truly stands out in a negative light with painful and inflectionless line readings. Seriously, she recalls the wooden Sofia Coppola from Godfather III.
I liked "Magic City," I just haven't felt a passion for it yet. I would definitely tune in for a second season if that's an option. It has all the potential in the world, it just needs to refine its storytelling and its characterizations. Technically, it's already one of the best shows on TV--now the writing and plotting need to step up for it to become a powerhouse of adult entertainment. Has potential, but not fully cooked yet. KGHarris, 5/12.