Premium networks play by different rules from the rest of television, but Starz has taken things to a new extreme: they've twice renewed shows before episode one even aired, first with Spartacus: Blood and Sand and now again with Magic City, a late-'50s drama revolving around a Miami hotel and its owner. In doing so, they're placing a big bet on the show's ability to find an audience and, one suspects, resonate with the high-minded types who keep piling praise on HBO, AMC, FX, and Showtime.
Only time will tell about the ratings, but from an artistic standpoint, Magic City needs some work. The show focuses on Ike Evans (a mumbly Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the proprietor of the Miramar Playa hotel in Miami. In the pilot (Starz sent out three episodes for review), he's forced into crisis mode by a union strike against the hotel that threatens to derail the big Frank Sinatra concert, which in turn could ruin the hotel's reputation as a hot spot. In a moment of desperation, he turns to a local mob boss (Danny Huston in cartoon-supervillain mode) whom he's already doing business with, and finds himself in deeper than he expected.
To series creator Mitch Glazer's credit, Evans is not a typical cable anti-hero. We get a few glimpses of him working his connections, treating his underlings well, taking care of his elderly father, and bonding with his family (consisting of two grown sons, a second wife, and a young daughter). He seems, in the early going at least, genuinely disturbed by what the mob is doing on his behalf. But at times, he seems a little too sidelined by what's going on around him. Sometimes, he's reminiscent of a less-entertaining Nucky Thompson from the early going of Boardwalk Empire, acting mostly by talking to people and making deals. Other times, the show feels like an alternate-universe version of The Sopranos where Artie Bucco, the restaurant chef who finds himself drawn into Tony's orbit, is the main character. There's nothing here that hasn't been explored before and explored better; the only intriguing feature of the mob arc is the way it weaves Evans's two sons into the action. They both loom as trouble spots for him: Danny (Christian Cooke) is hoping to become a lawyer and Stevie (Steven Strait) embarks on an affair with the mob boss's wife.
Magic City is set in 1959, but the period adds almost nothing; social and political unrest are mostly ignored and even the Cuban Revolution — which is happening as the series opens — is limited to a minor subplot. The period does give the show an opportunity to drop references to celebrities of the time. In the first episode alone, we get references to the Kennedys, Nat "King" Cole, Henny Youngman, Cary Grant, and members of the Rat Pack. The idea is that these are all people who've stayed, partied, or performed at the Miramar Playa. What we don't really get to see, though, is what makes this hotel so great. And that's a problem. The information that Peter Lawford is willing to eat there is not enough to get us to care whether the hotel (or Ike) survives. Nor is the fact that the subterranean bar offers a view of the bottom of the hotel's swimming pool. It's clear that Glazer, whose father was a hotel manager in Miami during this same time period, has conceived this project out of personal passion, but he may be too close to the material to realize that not everyone will automatically find the world of hotel management fascinating. And he has yet to give us another reason. But maybe he'll have figured it out by the end of this season — or at the latest, by the beginning of Season 2.