Perhaps we shouldn't have worn jeans to the premiere of Starz' Magic City, the cable network's latest original series, debuting April 6. Some eventgoers who gathered for the screening at the Directors Guild (and later flowed into the Chateau Marmont after-party) had on much more appropriately glamorous vintage attire: a nod to the show, which is set in a haute Miami Beach hotel in 1959.
Likely you're immediately thinking what we were thinking, which is this is a total rip of Mad Men. The whole midcentury thing has been done, and done well, so if another show is going to attempt it, it has to stand pretty tall to reach the high bar that's been set. As a hardcore Mad Men advocate, our expectations were that this show would fall short.
The pilot kicks off on the morning of New Year's Eve 1958. Hotelier and main character Ike Evans (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who lives at the illustrious Miramar Playa Hotel, which he runs, wakes with a start from a dream of several dead figures lolling at the bottom of the ocean.
Relieved, Ike gets out of bed. Not even 30 seconds of the show has unfolded, and there it is. A naked butt.
This sets off a string of semi-gratuitous nudity. There's man butt, woman butt, dozens and dozens of breasts, two blow jobs and a softcore sex scene just within episode one.
Which is one thing that really separates this show from Mad Men. Sure, Mad Men has its sex scenes, but they're mostly the bra-on, tumble-outside-the-camera-shot-onto-the-bed type. Magic City really goes for it, as much as it can without crossing into Skinemax territory, of course. It's a bit in your face, such as when Ike's son, Stevie, (played by Steven Strait), walks into a room full of half-naked hookers “getting dressed,” breasts a-blazing everywhere. You start to wonder if it's getting to be too much. And while it probably is, it makes the show undeniably sexy and tantalizing — something Mad Men has teetered on but not necessarily committed to. Magic City is erotic, and it's owning it.
But that's not all the show is. The storyline set up in the pilot is strong. It focuses not just on Ike but on his adult children. And as it turns out, it's not a period piece just for the sake of intrigue. Historical context seems paramount to the plot, considering episode one dove straight into Fidel Castro taking control of Cuba. Some of Ike's employees, with whom he has a somewhat familiar relationship, are concerned for relatives there, foreshadowing that Cuba will continue to play a role in the series.
Seeds are well planted in the pilot: Ike battles union organizers, who threaten the stability of his hotel. Sexual tension is hinted at between Stevie and his stepmother, Vera (played by Olga Kurylenko). Most intriguing of all, Ike's mob ties are revealed, along with the fact that he may have already bumped off nearly as many men as Tony Soprano.
There are places Magic City could take a cue from the incorrigibly subtle Mad Men and dial it back. In a scene in which Stevie meets the mysteriously alluring character of Lily (Jessica Marais), they share a whiskey, stare longingly into each other's eyes, feign an early New Year's countdown and kiss passionately, only for her to disappear. Come on. Nobody meets that way. Not even in a heavily romanticized 1958.
But that aside, Magic City proved to be one of the stronger pilots we've seen in a while. If we actually subscribed to Starz, we'd no doubt be back for more.