“What the hell is so wrong with a little yum-yum?” This is a question asked early in the second episode of Magic City, the Starz network’s grandest attempt yet to go tit-for-tat (and then tit again; there’s really an enormous amount of nudity) with the cable big leaguers, which premieres tonight. The answer given is, of course, “nothing.” And it’s abundantly clear that show creator Mitch Glazer, a former rock critic turned screenwriter (Scrooged) and producer (Lost In Translation), agrees. This entire series, set in a sprawling Art Deco hotel in Miami Beach at the tail end of the Eisenhower years, is positively soaked in yum-yum. It’s there in the languorous opening sequence in which a nude nymph doggy-paddles through a chlorinated nirvana. It’s there in the in the beveled tumblers of rum and whiskey being sloshed by Brylcreem mobsters and the bare-breasted dames who service them. And it’s certainly there in the opulent, pastel-hued sets, everything gleaming and glistening promisingly in the bright Florida sun. The problem, of course, is that there’s more to life – and good television – than a steady diet of yum-yum.
At the center of all this sordid saturation is Ike Evans, played by an almost comfortingly flat Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Morgan, best known for playing a handsome corpse on Grey’s Anatomy, is a likeable actor whose career-long commitment to minor-key machismo reminds me of Ron Burgundy’s extensive collection of leatherbound books; it provides an aura of substance that distracts from the shallowness below. Morgan’s Ike is cut from a familiar cable character cloth: he’s a dapper lothario who looks good in a suit and can pull off smoking a fireplug-thick stogie while shirtless without sending everyone scurrying for Freud. But there’s a dark side too, of course: building and managing the Miramar, his dream resort on Collins Avenue, has led Ike off the beach and into some morally treacherous quicksand. Our man’s in deep with with a local gangster and the teamsters are threatening to botch his big New Year’s Eve party with special guest Frank Sinatra. But Ike’s not just a rapacious, union-busting hood: he’s a smooth operator who loves his shiksa second wife (a pouty Olga Kurylenko) and especially his grown Ken doll sons. Stevie, played by Steven Strait (a former model who, as an actor, makes a hell of a former model), works closely with his pop, subsisting mainly on a steady diet of Pall Malls and other fellow’s molls. Danny (Christian Cooke), is earnest. We know this primarily due to his tender, love-like feelings for a Cuban maid and because Magic City doesn’t traffic much in nuance. So if one kid is pining chastely for Andy Garcia’s daughter, his brother inevitably must be receiving hummers in convertibles. Quid pro quo. (As for Ike’s pre-teen daughter, her main plot involves convincing her grandpa to attend her opulent bas – yes, it was before Hebrew “s”s became “t”s – mitzvah. This isn’t a drama, it’s supermarket gossip from my hometown!)
But, oh, about that gangster: Jewish capo Ben “The Butcher” Diamond is played by Danny Huston in a performance that’s almost dizzyingly traif. Whether greased up by the pool or oozing tuxedoed menace, Ben is a reliably fictional goon, the sort who shatters crystal decanters to make a point, sets fire to a table full of whiskey (while on a boat, no less!) to look cool, and silences barking dogs by shooting them in the skull. None of this adds anything at all to the story, of course, but at least Huston looks like he’s having fun, a feeling that’s in precious short supply during Magic City’s first three hours. Even so, the show was inexplicably renewed by Starz president Chris Albrecht before premiering, possibly to head off criticism or because he’s got a thing for gaudy ballparks. Perhaps the hasty decision would make sense if Magic City was broadcast without sound: everything looks amazing thanks to underrated director Carl Franklin (who made the great One False Move twenty years ago) and an admittedly gorgeous cast. But, as is, with the soundtrack of light samba murmuring in the background, it’s impossible to avoid the soggy, declarative monologues that pass for exposition, and the predictable death-lurch of the plot. Yes, Ike will do anything to protect his family. Yes, there’s trouble brewing on the horizon. Yes, Alex Rocco – sweetly but mistakenly cast as Ike’s alter kocker of an old man – should never be allowed near the Yiddish language again.
Magic City strives for the clever period panache of Mad Men, but it’s really just so much secondhand smoke. Whereas the former earns its historical setting through insightful writing and a lack of interest in backwards-looking sentimentality, Magic City is all surface: pretty people in pretty clothes doing unpretty things. At least through its first hours, the show offers little more than nostalgia disguised as cheap tourism. Sure, you can hang out by the pool and maybe play a round of shuffleboard, but Magic City has nothing to tell us about ourselves in 2012 that we don’t already know. It doesn’t unpack our clichéd vision of the past, when ties were skinny and it was always five o’clock somewhere. It indulges it.
Early in the pilot, Ike explains to a fresh-faced bellhop why the Miramar lobby is kept colder than a meat locker: it’s so the ladies can wear their furs. “That’s our job,” he purrs. “We sell the dream.” Unfortunately, no one is buying it nearly as much as Miami-native Glazer himself. When Stevie crosses paths with Ben’s trophy wife, the gorgeous Lily Diamond (a luminous Jessica Marais), the camera lingers fetishistically on the unsubtle spark of their twin cigarettes. Later, during their inevitable sand-spattered clinch, Stevie finally gets around to asking who, exactly, his bejeweled temptress really is. “The wrong woman,” she whispers in her best Deborah Kerr. Like his blank and beautiful creations, Glazer just can’t help himself. Especially when it comes to yum-yum.