The Light from the TV Shows: Magic City is a Must-Buy

I really don’t have much of a clue who reads what around here—I mean, I’m just sayin’, but…we do have a comments section, you know—but if you happened to have caught my column from April 25, then you already know a little bit about how I felt about Starz’s “Magic City” when it first hit the airwaves. At the time I wrote about it, however, I’d only seen the first three episodes, so I couldn’t really offer much in the way on incisive commentary. Indeed, to save you from clicking on the above link, the bullet points of my brief discussion of the series were…

1. It looks great.

2. The second episode rehashed too much of the pilot, but the third episode was much better.

3. As far as the cast goes, Danny Huston makes a great bad-ass, Jeffrey Dean Morgan is in fine form as well, and although Alex Rocco’s storyline was a bit schmaltzy for my tastes, he’s still Alex Rocco, which means his scenes are worth seeing simply because he’s in them.

All things considered, it’s probably best that I hadn’t yet seen the fourth episode when I wrote about the series, since not only did it prove to be the most disappointing installment of the entire season, but it left such a bad taste in my mouth—I believe the precise phrase I used to describe the series at the time was “infuriatingly inconsistent”—that, if I’m to be honest, I could’ve flipped a coin to decide my thoughts on whether it was going to get better or worse in the coming weeks. Pretty much all of the good will it had built up in the preceding three weeks had been shot all to hell in the span of a single hour.

Thank God it got better. In fact, it got so much better that, now that Magic City: The Complete First Season has been released on DVD and Blu-ray, I have absolutely no hesitation about recommending it as a must-buy. I really can’t speak to what happened behind the scenes to turn the series around in such a dramatic fashion, but it was one of the most impressive TV turnarounds I’ve ever seen.

“Magic City,” if you’ve never seen it, is set in Miami in 1959, not long after the Cuban Revolution, with Morgan playing Ike Evans, owner of the Miramar Playa, the snazziest hotel in the city. It’s the fulfillment of a dream for Ike, but it’s one that he’s achieved at a cost, having gotten financial assistance from mob boss Ben Diamond (Huston), a guy with such a nasty reputation that Huston himself has said, “You would not want Ben Diamond to do you a favor. I think even if he offered to open the door for you, you’d be, like, ‘No, no, that’s okay!’” It leads to a very interesting dynamic between the two men, with Ben knowing that he’s got a position of power in the relationship even as Ike is trying to convince himself that Ben’s really just a silent partner. The self-delusion is slowing disintegrating, however, first when Ike asks Ben to “take care of” a labor dispute, then when the hotel’s overhead hits a point where Ike has no choice but to ask Ben for more money, and the situation gets even worse when Ike attempts to gamble his way into salvation, only to end up even further in debt. It’s at this point that Ike decides to pitch Meg Bannock (Kelly Lynch), his late wife’s very well-off sister, on the idea of teaming up with him on the hotel in hopes of relying less on Ben…but that opens a whole other realm of problems, since there’s a ridiculous amount of sexual tension between Meg and Ike, a situation that Ike’s current wife, Vera (Olga Kurylenko), is in no way unaware of.

Beyond the Ike vs. Ben battle and the Ike/Vera/Meg triangle, Ike’s also having to deal with the district attorney, who’s sure that Ike had something to do with the labor union rep suddenly going MIA. Then there are Ike’s sons, Stevie (Steven Strait), who’s very much his father’s son in all the worst possible ways he can be, and Danny (Christian Cooke), a squeaky-clean lad who’s trying to pursue a career in law as well as a relationship with Mercedes (Dominik Garcia-Lorido), who works in the hotel with her father, Victor (Yul Vazquez), the general manager of the Miramar Playa. Meanwhile, Stevie’s playing with fire by having an affair with Ben’s wife, Lily (Jessica Marais), a situation which – as anyone might guess – is almost certainly destined to end poorly.

As you can see, “Magic City” is a good old fashioned soap opera, albeit one that plays more than a little bit like “Mad Men” meets “The Sopranos,” not that there’s anything inherently wrong with such a combination. Although it starts slowly, with so many different storylines whirling around that many of them are necessarily set aside for several episodes at a time, the fifth episode proves to be a turning point. At first, there’s that suspicion that the fourth episode was so bad that you might be overrating the proceedings, but, no, the show definitely gets into a groove that continues all the way to the season finale, leaving you dying to see what’s going to happen next. Now that the entire first season is available on DVD and Blu-ray, you really need to pick it up, put it in the player, and have yourself a good old fashioned marathon. Season 2 won’t be kicking off ’til next year, but there’s no time like the present to start getting psyched.