“Magic City,” Starz’s new series about the operational dramas and criminal enticements within a splashy Miami Beach hotel, shows up embarrassingly late to a retro brat-pack party that was just wrapping up. Hey, barkeep, the show suavely purrs. I’ll have whatever “Mad Men’s” having. Then it pathetically leers at the few remaining gals with the so-so gams.
Everything about “Magic City” (premiering Friday night; you can also watch three episodes for free online) feels trapped in the past. Not just trapped in the 1959 Miami in which it is set, but also trapped in the arduous habit our TV culture has of exhuming that era. There’s a desperate cigarette stench here of “The Playboy Club” and “Pan Am.” The show is lavished with period decor and costumes (including the inevitable subterranean cocktail lounge where topless mermaids swim past portholes behind the bar), and yet it lacks a steady pulse.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan stars as Ike Evans, the cool but increasingly stressed-out owner of the Miramar Playa, a beachside beauty with modern, Morris Lapidus sweep. Nearing a big New Year’s Eve weekend during which Frank Sinatra has agreed to perform, the Miramar verges on chaos as Ike tangles with striking hotel workers.
Ike turns to the mob to solve his union labor and financial messes, putting him in the sweaty palm of Miami’s big crime boss Ben “The Butcher” Diamond (Danny Huston). From that point on, “Magic City” becomes inexorably dull — a forced exercise in deceptions, killings, affairs and under-the-table deals.
Characters lazily drift here and back with the clocked regularity of the tides. There is Jack’s oldest son, Stevie (Steven Strait), a spoiled Lothario who unwisely begins an affair with the Butcher’s third wife (Jessica Marais). His other son, Danny (Christian Cooke), is a good-hearted law-school grad with a crush on one of the housekeepers (Dominik Garcia-Lorido). Upstairs in the Miramar’s penthouse apartment, Ike is madly in love with his young wife (Olga Kurylenko), but something’s not quite right in that relationship — which may or may not have something to do with the way Stevie ogles his stepmother.
And what else? Gleaming cars with tail fins, more mermaids swimming by, cha-cha lessons on the beach, a jazz band in a black-owned nightclub. It all just sort of sailed past in an uninspiring display of nostalgia. One dozes off as if sunbathing, oblivious to it.
That’s bad news for a TV drama that so clearly wishes to join the ranks of elite cable offerings. Whereas the grumbling lately has been about premium shows that are too densely layered and hard to “get into” (HBO’s unfortunately canceled “Luck,” for one prime example), “Magic City” suffers from endless predictability and a lack of creative storytelling. It’s too easy to get into — and get out of.
But, bizarrely, whatever you or I may think of the show officially does not matter: The ambitious execs at Starz have already ordered a second season. The network has some indication that critics weren’t wowed by the initial episodes, which is fine, because critics are a tough bunch. What’s more hubristic, I think, is to re-up an expensive series when you have absolutely no feel for whether or not your customers even like it. Starz took the same approach to “Boss,” its beguiling but uneven Kelsey Grammer drama about a corrupt Chicago mayor, renewing it well before viewers got a chance to decide if they loved it.
The old joke about bad hotels, thanks to the Eagles, is that you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. I’m here to tell you that’s not true. By watching three episodes of “Magic City,” I have paid your bill and you’re free to go.
(one hour) premieres Friday at 10 p.m. on Starz. The first three episodes can be seen for free online at www.starz.com.