Starz series Magic City stars Miami Beach and is 'picking up speed'

There may not be a cooler place and time to be than Miami Beach in 1959. Especially if you are Ike Evans, the smooth, accomplished owner of the glitzy Miramar Playa Hotel.

Which helps explain why Starz gave the green light to Magic City, a series based on this fictional, Rat Pack-era wonderland. Filmed entirely on location in Miami, it features former Watchmen/Grey's Anatomy star Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the ferociously detail-oriented Evans.

But what could be an exhilarating, dramatic romp through a town filled with the biggest celebrities in a sun-dappled playground instead often comes across as a mopey, conflicted sorta soap opera.

And I blame one influence over most others: Mad Men.

AMC's complex drama turned subsequent retro series into broad takes on the American psyche, filled with angst and lots of foreshadowing, as characters push against the rigid roles that probably were only visible for most with hindsight, anyway. It's also that angst, and super-sophisticated storytelling, which brought a boatload of Emmy awards to AMC, reinventing a musty outlet for old movies in the process.

So who can blame Starz for taking a bite of that apple, in a premium cable environment that allows for more nudity, cursing and explicit scenes than even the home of The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad can provide?

Creator Mitch Glazer downplayed any Mad Men influence, noting that he wrote the first Magic City script in 2007, based on his experience growing up with a father who was an electrician for storied Miami hotels like the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc.

"It was a mission of mine to get down there and use the city," Glazer said of filming in Miami. "Because I grew up there, when questions came up … I could take Jeff to a ballroom where the Beatles played in 1964 and I was there. You could immerse yourself in the reality of moment and I could speak to it."

This series should feel more like the second Godfather film; the thrilling story of a young lion building his empire, with a showgirl-turned-trophy wife by his side (played by Quantum of Solace's mesmerizing Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) and a ruthless gangster partner on his back (Wolverine's Danny Huston). Instead, we get Morgan's Evans as a good-guy hustler, fumbling with a union strike set to ruin a landmark New Year's Eve at the Miramar featuring the king of the Rat Pack, Francis Albert Sinatra.

It's a little jarring. Evans is sharp enough to walk in his hotel lobby and notice immediately the perfumed air isn't blowing, but he can't deal with his union mess before the Chairman of the Board hits town?

Still, we know Evans is cool because he even spends time with the bellhops: "Ever wonder why we keep it so cold in here?" he tells one. "So the ladies can wear their furs. That's our job. We sell the dream."

Unfortunately, Evans' dream becomes a nightmare, thanks in part to the casual cruelty of his partner, Huston's Ben "The Butcher" Diamond.

"As this goes on, I think that laid-back charm (Evans) has will be put to the test," Morgan said, noting that the first three episodes given to critics mostly just set the stage for later action. "This show is a train and it's picking up speed. … He's going to get his hands pretty dirty."

Which is great news, because Magic City could do with a bit more of that vibe, upgrading Evans from a moody manipulator to an embodiment of Miami Beach's smooth luxury and dangerous underbelly. That's a dream I wouldn't mind dipping into every week.

Magic City debuts at 10 p.m. Friday on Starz. The first three episodes are available for free until the end of today on several cable systems and online at www.starz.com/originals/magiccity.

, TiVo or Ti-NO | 'Scandal'

Debuts at 10 p.m. Thursday, WFTS-Ch. 28: What happens when one of the most powerful black women in the TV business creates a show about one of the most powerful black women behind-the-scenes in politics?

You get Scandal, the new series from Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes based on the life of Judy Smith, a renowned African-American crisis manager who has represented everyone from Monica Lewinsky to Michael Vick.

ABC makes it plain the series is "inspired" by Smith, casting knockout Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, the kinetic leader of a crisis management firm who kicks off Thursday's debut paying Russian mobsters $3 million in a darkened basement room.

Because this is Rhimes' gig, the characters are fast-talking, witty and impetuously competent, charming police and forensic technicians into giving them the kind of information that keeps them one step ahead of everyone. Still, at times it can feel like yet another reinvention of the same cops 'n' murder mysteries found elsewhere.

The situations themselves feel a little soapy — as is Rhimes' trademark too — from helping a president accused of an affair with a younger woman to aiding a young hero soldier accused of killing a woman close to him. Later, we learn Pope has a complicated connection to the president and a workaholic style that feels as much inspired by Rhimes' legendary pace as Smith's reputation.

While the first episode feels a little breezy for my taste, I think she has created a compelling character in Pope and an interesting template for future stories. So I'm TiVo-ing for sure.

Starz series Magic City stars Miami Beach and is 'picking up speed' 04/01/12 [Last modified: Sunday, April 1, 2012 6:29pm]

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