It seems that when creating a pilot for a new television series the creators have to make the difficult decision whether or not to skim the entire surface of a show's concept in the first hour, or to plumb its depths at the risk of leaving some in the audience scratching their heads. When it comes to the pilot for the new Starz period drama Magic City, creator Mitch Glazer (The Recruit) clearly decided skimming was the way to go.
This is not a condemnation of the rest of the series, it is just meant to infer that, although we see a great deal of Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), there is no true sense of what, where or even when Ike's run at the Miramar Playa actually took place. Sure, the beginning sequence tells us it's New Year's Eve 1958, but beyond that, all of the events carried out through the remainder of that first episode could have taken place anywhere or at any time in American history.
The fact that the era Magic City is hoping to depict is, for many reasons, a culturally rich one, yet only a hint of that is offered may be a telling one - or it may have been a victim of the attempt to insert a substantial crime element into the series' early beginnings. Either way, it feels as though there was a glorious opportunity to detail the myriad cultures descending upon Miami at the time, and it was largely missed, overlooked for the purpose of establishing Ike as a kind of misbegotten family man who had made his deal with the devil, and the devil was coming to collect.
Yet for the entire plot set up in the first hour, there is quite a bit of mystery waiting to be resolved. And this, to an extent, is also troubling. If it was necessary that all of these little plot threads and potential storylines be established, there should at least be one significant enough for the audience to really sink their teeth into. After the first hour, however, Magic City leaves its potential viewers with a rather simple notion that Ike is more or less tied to organized crime, mostly through his partnership with Ben Diamond (Danny Huston), who helped fund the Miramar Playa to begin with.
The other notion we are left with concerns Ike's two sons, Danny (Christian Cooke) and Stevie (Steven Strait). it's the latter who is more knowledgeable about his father's underworld dealings. Apparently, apart from having a completely different mindset than his father and brother, Danny is also romancing a member of the hotel staff, while Stevie is engaging in a torrid romance with Ben Diamond's new bride Lily (Jessica Marais). Stevie's women troubles are compounded by the insinuation he's having a hard time reconciling the fact that his father is now remarried to Vera (Olga Kurylenko).
This is all told against the backdrop that, on New Year's Eve 1958, as the Miramar Playa is preparing to host Frank Sinatra, they are being picketed by union organizers who demand Ike unionize his workers, or they'll eventually ruin his business. In addition to the union strife, all of Miami is captivated by the ongoing struggle of Fidel Castro to oust Batista from Cuba – the instability of the island country sees a huge influx of Cubans immigrating to southern Florida, and brings Ben Diamond with them.
So, despite all of the historical and social elements at play, Magic City chooses to focus mainly on introducing the Evans clan and their penchant for choosing the wrong women. Perhaps by playing more into Ike's struggle and apparent history with union organizer Mike Strauss (Leland Orser, otherwise known as the unfortunate guy in the massage parlor from Se7en), the pilot could have better tapped all the aforementioned avenues of interest, saving the introduction of the Evans family for later episodes.
Not only does the pilot push these more compelling elements to the background, but they also relegate the face-off between Ike and Mike largely to off-screen dealings and a montage sequence à la The Godfather – particularly the one that saw Moe Green (Alex Rocco) take a bullet to the eye. Perhaps this was a nod to Rocco, who appears briefly as Arthur, Ike's father, but paying an homage such as that seems like a poor way to eliminate one of the few stand out characters to be introduced in the pilot.
Which leaves Jeffrey Dean Morgan and (the typically great) Danny Huston to fittingly demand most of the attention on screen. Morgan's occasional affectless demeanor he perfected in Supernatural and The Losers effortlessly exudes the outwardly cool manner playing in stark contrast to the maelstrom of anxiety whirling within Ike as he struggles to keep his hotel afloat. Meanwhile, Huston brings the kind of menace he's become so adept at portraying (to varying success) in films like The Proposition and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Clearly, the pilot is pitting Ike against Ben, which would explain the sudden dismissal of Mike, but at this point it certainly feels like there is plenty of room for both.
Perhaps the most impressive bit so far is also the impetus for the various underhanded goings on: the Miramar Playa itself. The sheer grandness of the hotel, all its luxury, from the shops, to Ike's office, and most notably the darkened bar with a window to the Playa's swimming pool –where Ike and Stevie appear to do their best thinking – lend an air of much-needed tangibility to the proceedings. Since 1958-59 Miami plays more of a role in theory, having the Playa to dress scenes in will extend the show's credibility.
As the series progresses, it will hopefully deliver more on the possibilities hinted at in the pilot - there's a lot going on in terms of change in culture and diversity, but it has hardly found its way to the screen just yet. Instead, what we are left with is a fairly serviceable crime story that likes to hint at larger societal implications, while giving them little more than a cursory glance. What the larger story is in Magic City is unclear, but there seems to be no shortage of ideas floating around - as long as the writers are willing to venture beneath the surface.
Since the series has already been greenlit for a second season, Starz seems to think Magic City will be doing just fine.
Magic City airs Friday nights @10pm on Starz.