“Magic City” is one of the best-looking shows on TV right now, up there with “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Boardwalk Empire.” It’s set in 1959, in the elegant world of a fictional Miami Beach hotel called the Miramar Playa. Chaises and cabanas line the glamorous pool area behind the long, tall, curving structure. A giant shimmering aquarium fills a wall in the neon-lit bar. The hotel nightclub features Rat Pack-style entertainment. In the back offices, we hear the sound of chrome lighter-tops being flicked open and closed as cigarette smoke wafts though shafts of light.
It’s thoroughly transporting. The makers of the Starz show, which returns for season 2 on Friday at 9 p.m., have stunningly re-created a luxury establishment like the Fontainebleau, with marble floors in the grand lobby and pastel convertibles lined up in the carport. While “Mad Men” features a spare, theatrical vision of midcentury America, with each item – from a bowl of orange sherbet to a giant piece of op art – holding great visual weight, “Magic City” aims for a more sweeping view of the time. The exteriors are as evocative as the swanky interiors – and this being a waterfront setting infused with hot Florida sunshine and white sand, that’s a good thing.
The rich atmosphere serves as a spectacular backdrop for all the intriguing and seductive drama – actually, soap opera. When it premiered last year for its first eight-episode season, “Magic City” was often compared to “The Sopranos,” since the mob – this time the Jewish mob – is bound up with the plot. Danny Huston plays creepy boss Ben Diamond, who owns a chunk of the Miramar Playa, and his anarchic temper recalls the likes of Johnny Sack and Richie Aprile from the HBO series. But “Magic City” is a very different beast from “The Sopranos,” so don’t go in expecting that level of character drama and psychological insight. It’s built along more familiar genre story lines that play out like a Harold Robbins novel, with steamy romance, family tension, powerful men, money problems, dirty mob dealings, and plenty of nudity and sex.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the lead character, Ike Evans, the owner of the hotel. He’s his own man, and he regrets having let himself get in too deep with Diamond and the mob. Morgan is perfect for the role, with a weary, mature, handsome face. You root for him, despite his bad choices. In the season premiere, he is in jail, framed for killing a man he actually did kill, and his family is trying to get him out on bail. You’d be better off bingeing on season 1 before starting season 2, since this is a serial; but newbies can certainly jump in and piece together the story line, which isn’t too complex.
Ike has three children – a teen daughter, Lauren (Taylor Blackwell), and two young adult sons. Stevie (Steven Strait) has a lot of girlfriends, but he’s falling in love with Diamond’s wife – not a good thing on many levels, not least of all in light of Diamond’s nickname, which is “The Butcher.” Like his father, he’s a good guy who can’t stay out of trouble. Danny (Christian Cooke) is a law student with a stronger moral center than his brother – he probably takes after his mother – and he is torn between his loyalty to his father and the law. Ike also has a new wife, Vera (Olga Kurylenko), who is a lovely ex-dancer, and a former sister-in-law, Meg (Kelly Lynch), with whom he has a special bond. Romantic conflict ensues, particularly during a rather awkward Passover dinner in episode 2. Meanwhile, Ike has to deal with State’s Attorney Jack Klein (played by “Big Love” baddie Matt Ross), who wants to use him to get to Diamond. Aware of this, Diamond asks his boss in Chicago, played by James Caan, if he can get rid of Ike.
The writing on the show, created by Mitch Glazer, is perfectly fine. This isn’t the kind of scripting that would hold up under recap scrutiny by English majors; there are no big themes and unconscious character motivations, the kind that make even the slowest moments on “Mad Men” seem busy. But it’s miles above the flat soap dialogue of the likes of “Revenge” or “Dallas,” with character back stories that are slowly emerging and a lot of Cuban and Jewish Miami culture adding distinction. Also, Glazer and the actors give the characters telling idiosyncrasies that save them from becoming types – Ike, for instance, is a self-labeled bad Jew, while Vera, who converted, is far more committed. “Magic City” isn’t quite magical, as it tells the story of a man against the mob, but it casts an enjoyable spell nonetheless.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.