TV Series Review: Magic City

by Brad Nelson1/26/18
I’ll tell you right off the bat that I’m probably going to hell for watching this series. It’s a dark, somewhat pornographic, gangster-violence series. You may need to take a shower after watching it.

For those with a stronger stomach, there are some compelling elements to it. There is the essential of all such series: the great villain. Danny Huston plays Ben Diamond who is otherwise known as “the butcher.” By far he is the best character and actor in the troupe.

The series is set around a fictitious hotel set on Miami Beach. It is one so prestigious that it has a Frank Sinatra suite where no one but Sinatra is allowed to stay. The sets themselves are lavish and, I’m guessing, are gorgeous reproductions of the early 1960’s.

This series ran for two seasons and was cancelled. It may have become too expensive to produce and/or the ratings dropped. To some extent, I can understand the latter. The central character, Ike Evans — who conceived, built, and runs the Miramar Playa — becomes a conflicted and weak character as the series goes on.

But he doesn’t start out that way. He’s a handsome Jew with a gorgeous wife who, until her marriage to Ike, was a famous dancer. That’s how they met. Olga Kurylenko plays Vera Evans who is another compelling character in the series. Unable to conceive a child with Ike, she’s somewhat conflicted about being a stay-at-ritzy-hotel mom. She even has a fling with inviting Jackie Kennedy to the hotel. But I think the primary character of this series is the general elegance and richness of the hotel itself, and Vera Evans is a symbol of that and of what money can buy.

Ike plays the generally honest businessman who has necessarily had to make some compromises in order to fulfill his dream of taking an empty lot of sand and turning it into an earthly paradise for the moneyed set. His silent partner is Ben “The Butcher” Diamond. In the first part of season one, Ike Evans is walking that line between doing what he has to do to keep the Miramar Playa open without becoming one of the bad guys himself.

That is how his character is set up. He is to remain a good man while occasionally doing some dodgy things. He’s the smart guy who can, by his own wits, sidle up next to a guy such as Ben Diamond and not be the dog who gets up with fleas.

Unfortunately, in just one scene the supposedly school-of-hard-knocks Evans is turned into a mere puppet to drive the plot along. In one telling moment, he went from being Ike Evans the savvy (although sometimes dodgy) businessman walking the razor’s edge of success, to just an idiot. The Miramar Playa is hosting a title fight. Ben Diamond has leaked out that he has rigged the fight. And he does so in order to get everyone to bet on the supposed winner when, in fact, Diamond has rigged the fight for the other guy to win. Diamond hopes to clean up by then betting on the guy with the long odds.

Ike Evans, like everyone else, hears the rumor. His hotel is currently struggling with cash-flow problems, but not dangerously so. Hotels have slow seasons. But for some inexplicable reason (even though he is partners with Ben Diamond and knows the guy can’t be trusted and is always running a scam), Ike grabs all the spare cash he has in the safe and bets on the fight….and loses it all.

It seemed somewhat obvious at the time that Ike would know that Ben Diamond was up to something and thus would know the leak was a deception. But, no. He immediately went from savvy Ike to stupid Ike.

And if that wasn’t bad enough for your central character, in much of the rest of the two seasons Ike Evans becomes Dr. No. His role in the series seems to be to tell everyone else why they can’t do what they want to do. It gets old and gets boring. And this is your main character.

Thankfully, there is enough going on that doesn’t directly involve Ike. One of Ike’s sons gets involved with Ben the Butcher’s wife which a constant source of tension and danger. The younger son, Danny, is a goody-two-shoes and is thinking about interning with the local district attorney who is another very good character. You would remember Matt Ross as the tech giant and Jobs-like evangelist of Hooli in the HBO series, Silicon Valley. In Magic City, Ross plays the district attorney, Matt Klein, who is playing the long game to snare Ben Diamond and plans on doing so by first catching Ike Evans in something and then strong-arming him to give up Diamond.

Several characters get caught up in this struggle including the gorgeous hooker, Judi Silver, who is a member of the bevy of girls on-call at the Miramar Playa. Whether or not the Miramar Playa is what life was like in 1960’s Miami Beach, I have no idea. But the elegance of the hotel combined with the sleaze of prostitution and the undercurrent of the mob probably isn’t that far from the truth.

There is lots of gratuitous nudity and sexual situations in this series, so it’s not for everyone. I think the writers failed the main character and I can’t blame this failure on the actor who plays Ike Evans, Jeffery Dean Morgan. I think he’s crisp and sharp in the first several episodes before they make him stupid as well as turn him into Dr. No.

Even though the series is cut short, it does end in a way that doesn’t leave you hanging too much. It concludes in a marginally satisfying way while still leaving story lines open had there been another season.

But two is more than enough. I don’t recommend this series as such. But if you like good 60’s period pieces and gangster films, it does have that. And if you watch this, you may have Judi Silver’s body burned into your retinas. Magic City is currently streaming on Netflix but is scheduled to be off the service in early February, so now would be the time if you wanted to check out a couple episodes.


Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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7 Responses to TV Series Review: Magic City

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    So, if they had a suite permanently reserved for Frank Sinatra, did he ever show up in the series? He must do so sometimes or it wouldn’t be reserved for him.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Not even a look-alike Frank showed up. It was all played off-camera. But the first and/or second episodes dealt with Frank doing a show there which precipitated Ike asking his mobster friend to help with postponing the union picketing that was occurring at the time, at least long enough to squeeze Frank’s show in.

      And then after that show he was never mentioned again except for the “Frank Sinatra Suite” that only (spoiler) the Butcher’s boss was allowed to stay in. (Played by James Caan. He shows up in season 2.)

      This is a stylishly raunchy series. But if you take the broad view (no pun intended…but you should see the broads), you see the corrupting influence of ambition, if not also loose sex. You also see differences in character. Stevie, Ike’s eldest son, is a natural punk. But Danny, the younger son, is a born straight-arrow. Some get what is coming to them. Others not. But the show can get pretty gritty and I wouldn’t say they’ve over glamorized the mobster/hotel/casino trade.

      I remember reading remarks from Dean Martin. The gist of it was that people might be shocked that entertainers would have anything to do with the mob. But he said that if you were playing anywhere of note, these places were owned or partially-owned by the mob. Martin had an interest in a casino at one point but gave it up later on.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Too bad Jimmy Stewart wasn’t available to play Danny. But it’s probably been over half century since he was suitable for someone of that age. I’m not there’s anyone today who would be appropriate. Maybe Tom Hanks or Kevin Costner.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          This adaptation would have been way too raunchy for James Stewart. But in contemplating such a thing, it makes it obvious that encapsulate moral content in movies that are the equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah is like trying to smell a rose petal in a slaughterhouse.

          You might gleam a moral message or two from such series such as “Magic City.” But I’m guessing that any such messages are unintended, for this stuff is produced by people for whom being “judgmental” is a joy-killer. So no wonder the emphasis is on sex, violence, and action for action’s sake in so many modern productions.

          There is little that is subtle or thoughtful about this series. But bad guys (such as Darth Vader) don’t gain all that much from being subtle. And although Ben Diamond may seem over-the-top, he is a good character (a good bad character, that is).

          I would say that “Magic City” has no intention of doing anything other than painting human nature as pretty bleak. Although there is a district attorney opposing Ben Diamond and Ike Evans, he’s (and humorously so) quite a disagreeable character himself.

          But perhaps, to be fair, a close and realistic look at a Miami Beach hotel in the early 1960’s would look like the equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah. You might (although surely this is unintended by the producers of this series) glean a message of “money, sex, and power corrupt.” But you’ll not find that kind of explicit intellectual or moral content in this series. It’s basically just eye candy.

          But you could certainly re-make this into something suitable for Jimmy Stewart, or at least the modern day equivalent of him. But then this series was never meant to be much more than entertainment for what has become a culture-wide prurient interest, thus my opening paragraph in my review.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Well, it doesn’t seem to have been raunchy (I never saw the movie, though I read the MAD Magazine satire), but The Shootist seems to have been very violent and starred John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              You’re at a disadvantage not having seen “Magic City.” Watch it and you needn’t wonder why for even a moment that’s it’s not a Jimmy Stewart vehicle.

              But surely plenty of Westerns contained violence. But almost always the bad guys got it in the end. And there was a clear distinction between bad guys and good guys.

              But nor was there ever any lack of the reality of moral ambivalence. That might describe John Wayne’s character in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” although Wayne morphs into more of a hero character as the film goes on. Perhaps that is the character Han Solo is based upon.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              The main violence on display in “The Shootist” came in one scene toward the end of the movie. There was not a lot of blood and guts and it was pretty clear that those who were shot deserved it, including John Wayne.

              And in order to show that one should not resort to such violence, they had that silly bit where Ron Howard threw away the pistol after shooting the bartender who plugged John Wayne in the back.

              “The Shootist” was pretty much out of the mold of the traditional American Western of the 1940’s and 1950’s. It wasn’t “The Wild Bunch.”

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