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Television Review

In ‘Magic City,’ life isn’t always a beach

Steven Strait and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are stars in the new series “Magic City,’’ which is set in a plush resort hotel in 1958.

Starz Entertainment

Steven Strait and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are stars in the new series “Magic City,’’ which is set in a plush resort hotel in 1958.

The fictional Miramar Playa Hotel, the centerpiece of the sumptuous new Starz drama “Magic City” premiering Friday at 10 p.m., is the kind of pristine behemoth of luxury resort hospitality from which “wish you were here” postcard dreams are made: all immaculate white facade, sparkly sea, and enticing sands.

The eight episode series was created and written by screenwriter Mitch Glazer (“The Recruit,” “Scrooged”) and inspired by his own upbringing in Miami Beach.

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Opening on New Year’s Eve 1958 ­­­— as everyone in the hotel hustles to get ready for the night’s Frank Sinatra concert — “Magic City” examines what happens deep inside and around the edges of that picture-perfect image, where the facade has cracks, the sea holds dark secrets, and the sands are shifting perilously.

Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is the king of this glamorous palace, home to his three kids ­— older son, right-hand man, and resident player of the Miramar Playa, Stevie (Steven Strait); younger, straight-as-an-arrow law student Danny (Christian Cooke); and teen daughter Lauren (Taylor Blackwell) — as well as his young, va-va-voomy second wife. (Her name is Vera, she was a showgirl. She’s played by former “Bond” girl Olga Kurylenko.)

Morgan (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Watchmen”) has the perfect leonine countenance to grace this particular throne. One moment he’s glad-handing guests with a swellegant swagger in a white dinner jacket, the next he’s hanging his crown-burdened head in rumpled resignation, putting out fires that range from ruinous (labor union woes) to niggling (Lauren’s bat mitzvah wishlist ­— Frankie Avalon was a hot get in 1959, apparently).

But it’s hardly beach blanket bingo for Evans as we learn in the pilot, which is shot so vividly you can feel the warmth of the beach and the cool of the lobby through your screen. Glazer, a former rock critic, also chooses his music with equal care.

It turns out Evans had a little help in creating his kingdom from one Ben “The Butcher” Diamond (Danny Huston), and the mobster didn’t earn that nickname for his prowess behind the deli counter. As played with quiet malevolence by Huston, this not-so-silent partner will clearly be both the solution to and the cause of many problems for Evans, as Diamond reminds him of the fate of the frog that offered a ride to the scorpion.

The real world will clearly nip at the edges of the show as race relations, the Rat Pack, political unrest in Cuba, and the Kennedys all tangentially — and relatively smoothly — factor into the pilot alone.

While bubbes and kids frolic on the beach by day, prostitutes and bruisers ply their trade at night, and Evans attempts to hold it all together and somehow retain his integrity as well as his shirt. We have our doubts he’ll be able to manage it, but it will be entertaining to watch him try.

Because this is premium cable, there is plenty of nudity as well as adult language and sex, but it all feels genuinely organic to the world of the show.

Comparisons to both “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos” are already being bandied about, and certainly there are similarities, including the time frame from the former and the mob angle from the latter. The performances and the writing in the pilot don’t quite reach the bar set by those predecessors, but Glazer stakes his claim to his own little corner of the beach, and we’re hopeful the series will eventually produce similar magic.

(For viewers who can’t wait or those who don’t subscribe to Starz but would like to sample the show, the premium cable outlet has made the first three episodes available online at www.starz.com.)

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.
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