Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Olga Kurylenko star in "Magic City." (Greg Williams / Starz Entertainment )
"Magic City," an attractive, but frustrating new series from Starz about a Miami Beach luxury hotel, is the third drama this TV year, after the quickly dead "The Playboy Club" and the probably not returning "Pan Am," to be set in the middle of the 20th century. While on the face of it these shows seem like an attempt to draft off the cultural energy of "Mad Men," and may well be, they also represent in their small, halting way the birth of a new American genre, to join the western and the gangster film — midcentury stories of big dreams and dreamers, of prosperity and its undercurrents, set at the corner of Eisenhower and Kennedy, furnished with Eames chairs and cigarette machines.
"The union won't cross the picket line to deliver my booze and I've got fifteen-hundred thirsty people comin' to see Sinatra tonight" says Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), establishing his milieu and his problem in a single line of dialogue. It's New Year's Eve, 1958, at the Miramar Playa and, rather improbably, the future of all he holds dear rests upon things going well — a critical moment, or so he imagines, that has driven him to call on the muscle of silent partner Ben Diamond (Danny Huston, sounding almost purposely like his father John), a mobster back in town with a hot new wife (Jessica Marais) and plans to "wear this town like a diamond necklace."
Morgan, who played the beloved Denny Duquette on "Grey's Anatomy," is an attractive actor — you feel happy when he's onscreen. But, as often as he asserts it, you don't register his pain (perhaps he protests too much), and Ike comes across less as an interesting mass of contradictions than as weirdly out of touch.
His character seems worked out as if on a scale, with enough points in his favor — like his 51% of the Miramar compared with Ben's 49, which he seems to imagine makes his operation a "clean" one — to excuse those ones against him. If he won't let the unions into his hotel, he already pays his workers a better wage than his competitors. If he is not above a little blackmail or bribery to get what he wants, it is for what we are to regard as the higher good of his hotel and family.
But it's hard not to see his big choice — to cooperate with the unions or to call in the mob — as a false one. And it seems never to have struck him that Ben's nickname, "The Butcher," was not merely alliterative.
Helping out around the place is smoldering older son Stevie (Steven Strait), whom we tediously first see receiving oral sex in a moving convertible; he runs the bar and oversees the escorts, of whom Elena Satine's Judi is the one actual part. Straight-arrow law student son Danny (Christian Cooke) gets little to do in the series' first three hours past moon over housekeeper Mercedes (Dominik Cristina García-Lorido), the daughter of Ike's Cuban right hand man (Yul Vázquez), who is fretting over the revolution back home. Olga Kurylenko plays their Gypsy stepmother Vera, and Alex Rocco turns in a lovely performance as Ike's father, an old Jewish atheist who sits in with Cuban musicians and reads "The Worker."
It's clear that creator Mitch Glazer, who grew up in Miami Beach around hotels like the Miramar, is working out of love and knowledge. I trust that when Ike tells bellboy Ray, that the temperature is kept low in the hotel so women can wear their furs and that perfumed air that "smells like the ocean, and new money" is pumped into the lobby, he is describing an actual practice.
Physically, it's a beautiful show, impeccably designed and photographed, full of lovely people in lovely clothes in that lovely Florida light. The Miramar itself is a spectacular, gorgeous piece of work, a slightly more tasteful (to modern eyes) pastiche of the work of Morris Lapidus, who designed the Fontainebleau, Eden Roc and the Deauville and was a Glazer family friend. I was surprised to learn later that it was all a set.
Would that the drama were as convincing. I'm inclined to give "Magic City" a few more episodes to deepen or darken or make me care, or even to establish itself as a very pretty, happily artificial melodrama that opts for sensation over sense and just wants to show you a good time.
But as it stands, the fate of Ike's hotel, and Ike, and everybody else here holds no sway or suspense. Glazer has built a beautiful edifice here, but he still needs to get some life into the place.